FEATURE: ‘How we’re striving to bring people in out of the cold’
Do the words white Christmas send a shiver down your spine? Not a tingle of anticipation, but a real stab of icy dread.
They would if as the snow began to fall your bed for the night was a shop doorway or a flimsy tent.
Tonight, it is possible a dozen or more people will sleep rough in West Suffolk.
Facing that prospect as the temperature plummets below zero is something most of us would find hard to even imagine.
For some, though, it is a bitter reality and their numbers have been growing.
Last week West Suffolk councils, with the help of a local church, opened a temporary night shelter which can provide 10 beds.
The councils are working with Havebury Housing Association to set up a permanent shelter.
They are also using 100 units of temporary accommodation including bed and breakfast and hostels. But the heartbreaking truth is that some people are just not ready to accept help.
Persuading them to come in off the streets can be a long, difficult process.
Working to bring them in from the cold is a priority for the councils’ housing team.
The prime concern is preventing people becoming homeless in the first place.
But if the worst happens and someone ends up sleeping rough, the aim is to help them put their lives back together.
A rough sleepers prevention and support officer has recently been appointed.
Rhys Walters, who grew up in Suffolk, is an experienced worker in rehab, detox, and supported housing.
Funding for his post was secured by St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath, Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils.
But most of his work is currently in Bury, which has more street homeless than other areas.
Rhys is well placed to understand the challenges facing those he works with.
He was once homeless himself, in London. “I slept rough for a very short time. I know what it feels like to be out in the cold.” he says.
Support services were there for Rhys when he needed them. Now he aims to persuade others to engage with the help that could bring lasting change to their lives.
But it is often not easy. Many feel alienated by any kind of “authority” and some may have been sleeping rough for years.
“It’s about building trust,” says Rhys. “They need someone to listen. Some of them have given up hope.
“The main focus is trying to get people to identify and confront the barriers.
“It can be a long and delicate process especially is someone is in denial about some of their behaviour.
“If someone wants help it is half the battle. You need to get them to see there is help out there. It’s about trying to empower people to take responsibility.”
Those living on the streets may have complex problems including mental health issues, or drug and alcohol misuse.
Others have lost their homes due to debt or relationship breakdowns, or have fallen through the benefits net.
Or they might be might be fleeing from extreme trauma like one teenager helped by Bury Drop-In.
His close family were wiped out in a car crash and he simply could not bear to stay in his home.
The latest West Suffolk figures, issued in late November, showed 16 people sleeping rough in Bury.
Six were recorded in Haverhill, four in Newmarket, and one each in Brandon, Mildenhall and Santon Downham.
But the numbers go up and down all the time.
Peter (not his real name), had been sleeping rough in the Bury area for almost three months.
He was speaking before the night shelter opened, but his words show the bleakness of life on the streets.
Every evening when it started to get dark he would go back to the tent which was all he had to call home.
Huddled into his sleeping bag to keep warm, he found it hard to sleep.
“I think too much and I can’t sleep,” he said. “Sometimes you go back to the tent and everything has been wrecked and thrown about.
“It’s cold and dark and I feel frightened. You think, if the tents get vandalised, what else could happen.
“You can’t leave anything of any value there, so I carry everything with me.
“I spend most days in the library, but when it gets to a certain time of day there is nowhere you can go.
“The choice is walking and freezing in the street or going back to the tent
“Often there is no respect for people who have nothing. Some people understand, others not at all. Most people can’t imagine what it’s like. Most people never think that one day it could be them.”
He came here 15 years ago from Portugal, and has been homeless since he and his ex-partner were evicted from their flat for rent arrears.
“I stopped being entitled to benefits because I couldn’t find enough hours work to qualify. Before, I was working 60 hours a week. I’m desperate for a job – I would do anything.”
The only reason he stays in Britain is to keep seeing his baby daughter to whom he has limited access.
He looks forward to a twice-weekly hot lunch at Bury Drop-In, which operates on Tuesdays and Fridays at Brentgovel Street Methodist Church.
Co-operation with the organisations like the Drop-In, a charity run entirely by volunteers, is crucial to the councils’ bid to help rough sleepers.
It offers a warm welcome with free drinks and food, practical support, expert advice, or just a friendly chat, to vulnerable people.
The Drop-In is an ideal place for Rhys to meet those who are sleeping rough, and talk in a relaxed atmosphere.
“I spend a lot of my time just listening to people,” he says.
It enables him to talk through their problems, and steer them in the right direction for the help they, as individuals, need.
Winning the trust of people with complex problems is an important way volunteers can help,” says Sara Lomax, housing options and homelessness service manager for West Suffolk councils.
“The Drop-In provides a link where people can come in and have a cup of tea and a chat. If one person can gain their trust, they will start to talk to Rhys.”
From April the new Homlessness Prevention Act will put a duty on councils to help all homeless people not just those with children.
West Suffolk has a already employed a new officer sourcing accomodation in the private sector, and one for welfare support.
“Our team receives 60 to 70 calls a week and so far this year we have managed to prevent or relieve homelessness for 440 households,” said Sara.
“Because you see people sleeping on the street doesn’t mean we are not doing anything, but it is a slow process.”
Bury Drop-In chairman Mike Coleman says: “You have to listen and break down barriers. It takes weeks.
“There are 23 agencies we refer people to, many are linked to what we are doing with the council.
“The fact is anyone could become homeless. We don’t judge people. We show them they can have another chance whatever they have done and whatever age they are.”
Donations of cash, food and clothing can be made to the Drop-In, or Gatehouse, which runs the foodbank in Bury.