Keith Lawson-West literally took to heart Christian teachings about poverty and social justice ‘to feed the hungry and help the poor’ when 20 years ago he volunteered in a soup kitchen with the Salvation Army.
When that division moved out of Leicester, the volunteers wanted to continue servicing the huge need.
“At that time Leicester had the highest homelessness count in the country after London, there was a massive problem.”
They approached a church that accommodated them; 20 homeless people turned up on the first night. Within three years, they ran a night shelter. But then the church reconfigured its space and they couldn’t stay.
Another branch of the Salvation Army offered space, and again, numbers grew to 100 per session. Then that branch closed.
“After five years, we were faced for the third time with nowhere from where to operate.”
They’d learnt how to engage those with the most challenging behaviour, with repeat homelessness.
“We needed to have a permanent base to run a hub because they were trusting in us. We weren’t part of the system and were sympathetic to their needs.”
Last May they found premises on the St Matthews estate, in the bottom 10% of poverty, near the city centre. “It meant that we got somewhere cheap in terms of rent.”
“We’re revolutionary in many ways,” Keith said. They support 150 people at any one time.
The Job Centre comes to them, running a job club every Monday. “This is the first time that they’ve done it in the country, because our clients wouldn’t go to them.”
Law students come in with a lecturer to give legal advice; medical students every fortnight for medical support, alongside psychiatrists.
“We’ve started a fitness group because if you’re feeling better about yourself you can engage with more learning. We’ve got funding to start art and therapy groups, we’re going to start a gardening group – things designed to make people feel better about themselves, to build hope.”
The Bridge – Homelessness to Hope has highly specialised trustees, such as the Head of Mental Health Services in East Midlands and the Dean of Medicine at the University of Leicester to bring in expertise, connections and knowledge. “We have 30 medics come in who see on average 50 homeless people and refer them on to various services and diagnose their problems – I don’t know of another organisation that does that.”
Every Sunday lunch they feed up to 100 homeless. They brought in an opportunities fair with art, yoga, drama and music. “We’ve been dragging people to engage and now they’re knocking on the door saying, when are you going to start these as courses?!”
“It will take five years for these people to realise their potential but we can see the vision we had is going to work.”
Last year, in one of the worst winters, five of their guests died on the streets.
They are restrained by finances. Although successful at bidding for new projects, funding core costs is impossible.
They approached the Key Fund to set up a mobile coffee van.
“This is the reason we wanted to set up a social enterprise to cover our core costs.”
They’ve since converted an ice-cream trailer to a second coffee wagon.
Keith retired as a solicitor ten years ago to focus on The Bridge – Homelessness to Hope.
“It seems to me very much like Dickensian times seeing people increasingly rough sleeping on the streets; I never thought this would be the 21st century.”
“Without the Key Fund we wouldn’t have been able to start, it’s as basic as that. It’s enabled us to start the business.”
Spotlight On: Patrick Harris, 52, Outreach Worker
Patrick had a tough childhood, going into children’s homes and fostering. When his marriage split, he ended on the streets for four years.
“It was an emotional ride. I was devastated, she’d gone, I didn’t have my young kids, I went on a spree where I was drinking a lot and got myself into a mess.”
He became a volunteer and has been at The Bridge – Homelessness to Hope for ten years, now in a paid position.
“I’m here to show that if I can do it, there’s no reason why you can’t.”
“The Bridge is part of my life. I’m here six days per week, I know how much it’s needed. I get up at 4am, ride my bike into town – say come down, get them something to eat, a shower, a change of clothes, ask them questions – do you have a doctor, are you on benefits? When they’re in the building we can slowly work with them.”
Patrick sees system-wide failure, from the benefits system to the lack of specialist support for issues like Spice.
“Homelessness is not the issue; the problem we’re facing is mental health. That’s what we’re fighting – depression, mental health, alcohol. I’ve got a guy now, just out of jail, he’s been given a place with a bed and that’s it. He came to me and said all my friends are out on the streets, he said, what’s the purpose? He didn’t have any on-going support on his premises.”
His ambition is to have a residential and rehab centre.
“It’s about love. These guys are missing the love. Someone to sit down and talk to them and say how’s your day, how do you feel – it’s just that love.”
This year Dr Patrick Harris was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Leicester for his work with the homeless.