Homelessness doesn’t start with a first night on the streets. It doesn’t even start with a night on a friend’s sofa or at a hostel. It can start with a difficult time in school, mental health problems, a difficult relationship or family breakdown.
Off The Fence works with the homeless, women in crisis and children in education in Brighton and Hove. These three strands have been developing since the charity began in 1997 and come from over two decades of finding the root causes of poverty and being where they are.
They work on the premise that homelessness isn’t solved by just a sleeping bag and hot food, although sleeping bags and hot food are an excellent place to start. Off The Fence has always been about offering people hope and community as well as the practical tools and emotional support needed for a transformed life and brighter future.
Inspired by the invaluable work the charity do around our city, Absolute Magazine spoke to Co-founder Paul Young to see what they’re up to and how we can all get involved…
Your Antifreeze project involves outreach teams going directly onto the streets of Brighton with the aim to meet the basic needs of the homeless. Is there a way in which an individual can approach Antifreeze themselves?
Absolutely. The different stages of care at Antifreeze (our flagship homeless work) are really important. Our teams go out onto the streets four times a week to provide warm clothing, hot drinks and signposting to our services, and other services in the city. We also have teams out with our shower and laundry vans. These take hot showers and clean clothes to locations across the city, promoting good hygiene, and helping us win the battle against preventable but life threatening infections.
Through this work, we always encourage clients to use our day centre, and that’s crucial because the care we provide on the streets could really be described as ‘acute.’ We’re dealing with their needs there and then, and those needs can be the difference between life and death, but in order to make lasting change, they need further support. At our centre on Portland Road, which is open four days a week, we provide practical support, such as clean clothes, showers and laundry, and health care support with visits from podiatrists, dental hygiene workers and hairdressers. We also provide support with housing benefit, universal credit, referrals to emergency accommodation and drug, alcohol and mental health support. A really valuable element of our day centre is also our community hour. A significant and damaging aspect of homelessness is isolation and rejection. A quiz, or a board game or round of bingo with people who treat you well and are happy to see you can make as much difference as the practical support our clients receive. It helps them feel included and builds social skills which are vital for relationships and employment, which in turn are key features of a productive, independent and positive future. If anyone asks how they can support a homeless person they meet, we encourage them to give out our street sheets which show them what services are available to them at any time of the week.
“This place means everything to me. The staff have always been good to me. They’ve always given me support. They got me into the Nightshelters. Two weeks ago I used the shower. It was lovely and hot. I smelt nice at the end of it, I felt nice at the end of it. It made you feel good about yourself. This is a very special place.”
What happens once someone is housed? A political issue that’s been raised recently is poor aftercare for the homeless once they get into housing.
The early stages of housing are problematic. Often the problems that caused homelessness, such as mental health problems or addiction, have not gone away and in fact are often compounded by PTSD and health problems caused by their time on the streets. We now continue our care after people are housed by doing weekly home visits, to make sure they are connected with community groups and any health support they need. The most important part of this work is really to have an opportunity to see if there are any significant personality changes, as sadly, suicides often occur in the early stages of housing.
Tell us about Gateway. What additional support do you offer vulnerable women in Brighton?
Gateway Women’s Centre works with women struggling with issues such as anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies, domestic violence and abusive relationships. Again, at the heart of this work is community. We offer practical support, such as our foodbank and help with health appointments and form filling, but our home visits and various craft groups where our service users support each other and build confidence through simple activities are equally important. By creating community, and mutual encouragement, and by building confidence, we give our service users the tools they need to face the world again, with strength and dignity.
The best way to illustrate the difference we can make to a life is by hearing the stories behind the women we help. Here’s Jo’s story…
“After losing both my partner of 20 years and my mother-in-law to cancer, my depression, stress and anxiety became overwhelming. I have some physical health problems and use a wheelchair to get around. Without my partner’s help I couldn’t go out alone and I became isolated, which made everything worse.
My GP told me about Gateway, to help me start socialising again. I knew I needed to start dealing with all of this stress, depression and loss.
Gateway has helped me loads. I feel protected here and everyone at Gateway is so nice. I now have something to get up for in the mornings. Although I’ve only been coming for about seven months, I feel I’ve slotted in really well.
The staff here are so helpful and friendly, they make great coffee and there’s always something nice to do, like colouring, chatting, games or activities – the time always runs out too quickly! There’s no bad atmosphere at all. I wasn’t expecting Gateway to be like this – I thought I might have to sit in a quiet room with everyone having to go around and say what’s wrong with you. But it’s not like that at all – I felt so welcomed and put at ease straight away when I came here. If I’ve got a problem, I can come here and always have someone to talk to. I never used to have that. I used to pent it all up inside, but now I don’t have to. The staff have helped me practically too. For example, they emailed the hospital for me and this brought an appointment forward by 6 months and also got me a home visit which saved me a trip by myself to the hospital which would have been difficult.
Gateway has given me different things to do like the Wednesday Wellbeing workshops. For example, I’ve been on a bread making workshop with Gateway to the Stoneham Bakery, and I’ve never done anything like that before. It felt good to make the dough, see how it turned out and think “I made that.” I’ve also done a cookery workshop at Gateway which taught me how to make easy, healthy food to my dietary requirements. I learnt new recipes – particularly for breakfast – which I can prepare whilst sitting down, which has been so helpful as I cannot stand to cook due to my physical illnesses. The women here always welcome me when I come in and ask me to sit next to them. When I think of some of the women I now know at Gateway, I no longer think of them as “just a lady down at Gateway” but as a “friend.” It’s so nice to have new friends to talk to and go for coffee with. I’m part of a good community and lovely circle of friends.
Thanks to Gateway, people have said that I seem a lot happier now, and I don’t want to run away or disappear so much. In the last three weeks, I’ve even started going out on my own which I was never able to do before. A friend accompanies me to Gateway normally, but I’ve been able to go to Gateway alone. I also used to need someone to take me to the bus stop and wait with me until I got on the bus, but now I’m starting to get buses all the way into town by myself. I still panic when I go out by myself, but without Gateway, I would never have had the confidence to try going out alone. Thanks to Gateway, I am also more confident to do things like make phone calls by myself like to my doctor, to go to my GP on my own, and to go to the shops alone. Gateway has improved my confidence so much. I get to have a laugh there as well!”
Tell us about your schools and youth programme. What additional support you offer young people in Brighton?
Our schools team work in fifteen different primary and secondary schools across Brighton and Hove. Half of this work involves providing workshops and courses on issues such as self-esteem, anxiety and healthy relationships. They also provide lunch clubs, safe space clubs and 1-1 mentoring. We also do work with transition to secondary school mentoring. This is a really difficult time for many children, but a good start to year 7 can have a lasting positive impact on their future. The other half of this work involves covering some of the schools SMSC teaching (Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural) by providing multisensory prayer and reflection spaces which promote compassion, empathy, forgiveness and gratitude.
This work adds so much value to Off The Fence. Not only do we have the opportunity to catch some of the issues that we often see at Antifreeze in the early stages. We also promote the kind of society that cares about its neighbours, whoever they may be. We are proud to be sought after in so many schools and are excited to see this work growing.
As with all charities you must rely heavily on volunteers. How can our readers get involved in volunteering?
There are two ways you can help us practically. We have a volunteer page on our website where you can find specific volunteer ‘vacancies.’ Because we are committed to providing high quality support to vulnerable people, our volunteer recruitment process is pretty vigorous, and our current volunteers work with us either weekly or bi-weekly and are expected to take training. The commitment level is high, but so are the rewards!
The second and equally valuable way you can volunteer is by fundraising. We have a fundraising pack, equipping you for everything form a bake sale to a mountain climb. We also have a ‘Run for a Reason’ page on our website. If you’re planning a 5k or a marathon and want to run it for us, we would love to hear from you. We have no council funding so we really are reliant on the goodwill of others to keep our work going.
If unable to give their time, are there other ways readers can help?
Please see our current ‘Wishlists’ on our website for how you can give practically to any of our 3 frontline projects www.offthefence.org.uk
What do you believe to be the best course of action for the government to combat homelessness?
I think it involves joined up, intentional national policy, which should include: a big rethink on Universal Credit, affordable housing, better NHS mental health support at school and in adults, a crackdown on professional begging, abstinence based drug and alcohol treatments, and above all a focus on empowering not enabling.
What does the future hold for Off The Fence?
Off The Fence has grown it’s work significantly over the last 20 years, by always coming alongside current issues to provide the support the most vulnerable in the city need. We’re the only charity in the country with a mobile shower and van unit and our home visit initiative are recent examples of this.
We have a robust business plan that covers the next five years, which includes long term client housing and larger premises in Hove for our projects; enabling us to continue to watch and respond in a way that makes a lasting difference to Brighton and Hove.