The most vulnerable people in our city are being helped by others who have been at rock bottom

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YOU have probably seen them lying in a sleeping bag in a shop doorway on a cold morning as you hurry to work; or sitting begging as they swig from a bottle of booze.

Mostly, they are ignored. Sometimes, people give them spare change.

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These are perhaps the most vulnerable people in our city and the most excluded in society. They are unable to sort out ‘normal’ life as we know it.

But now, a radical new way of helping the get back on track has been introduced on the streets of Leeds and other parts of West Yorkshire.

People who are homeless, have problematic substance misuse, have re-offending behaviour and suffer mental health problems, or a combination of these factors, are being specifically targeted for help.

They are not referred for appointments through normal channels such as GP, probation service, drug project workers or homeless hostels, instead they are especially ‘sought out’ by staff from the the Lottery funded West Yorkshire Finding Independence (WY-FI) programme.

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Staff have titles such as navigators and many of the employed workers are ‘experts through experience’ who have been at rock bottom themselves, but somehow managed to come back from the brink.

Scott Bell, (pictured) is a former heroin addicted who has successfully turned his life around, He was first employed by the probation service in Leeds, before taking up a job with WY-FI as a community engagement officer.

Scott says: “It helps when people have been there themselves, although of course, everyone’s experience is different. We want to make sure the services we offer are answerable to the people we need to help.

“The project is already having an impact and will certainly have a lasting effect on how help is given in future. It is great to be a part of that. Trust is the most important factor as the people who need help must be able to trust us to help them to help themselves. It may seem impossible at first, but they are not forced to fill forms in, and turn up to an appointment a week on Tuesday, or anything like that as it simply won’t happen initially. Their lives are chaotic and we try to help them sort it out.”

For Scott knows all too well the pitfalls of addiction: “We are out there in the places we know people will sleep rough or meet up. Many have survived for years sleeping out and it is a case of finding those who don’t necessary want to be found.”

This ambitious plan, funded through Big Lottery Fund’s £112m nationwide initiative to support people with multiple needs, will work with people with at least three of the four complex needs.

WY-FI estimates that 1,455 people out of the 2,445 people in West Yorkshire who experience three or more of these needs do not receive all of the services they require.

The Fulfilling Lives programme, also being run in 11 other cities in the UK, is designed to support 1,050 West Yorkshire beneficiaries over its six year term, which launched in the summer.

It is backed by high profile celebrities such as Russell Brand, who has had his own battle with addictions and Mitch Winehouse, the father of talented singer Amy Winehouse, who died from a drugs overdose.

The new way of working will help people access the help they need, build their resilience, gain confidence and acquire the personal and social assets they need to get their life back.

Hannah Glew, communications officer at WY-FI, explains: “We have a radical new way of working to help the most vulnerable. The aim of our Multiple Needs programme is to improve the lives and wellbeing of people with the most entrenched multiple and complex needs. It is those who don’t engage in services, revolve in and out of support projects or are excluded from help.

“The image of social workers and project workers being bogged down with too many caseloads will not happen. We have staff who have only a few ‘beneficiaries’ or clients at a time so they are not overwhelmed and can concentrate on their needs and help them get back to a life. They are given the time needed to help those in need.”

The project is led by Leeds-based DISC (Developing Initiatives Supporting Communities) and overseen by a board made up of experts by experience, representatives from voluntary sector delivery partners and statutory organisations including local authorities, police, prison and probation, public and mental health partnerships.

The third sector partners are: Barca Leeds, Bridge, Community Links, Foundation, Shelter, Spectrum CIC, Touchstone and Together Women Project.

Mark Weeding, chief executive of DISC, the lead organisation of the WY-FI partnership, said: “We were established to help those most excluded from society realise their potential and WY-FI helps us realise this dream.

“No one agency has the answer. We need to work with housing, probation, drug treatment and mental health services to find solutions that work.

“The challenge is to work together with those whose lives are chaotic and problematic, to keep faith that lives can change and to recognise the huge value to individuals, families and communities when this happens; and it does.”

Sue Slevin, 50, (pictured with blond hair) knows from experience how easy it is to fall into a spiral of drug addiction, crime and living on the streets.

“I’ve spent 32 years of my life in addiction. I started injecting amphetamines at 16. I managed to stop at 22, but used alcohol and cannabis to ease the come down. I drank excessively and was alcohol and drug dependant.

“At first it wasn’t a problem, but my using and drinking progressed until one day, I repeatedly stabbed a neighbour in a frenzied attack. Scarily, I have no recollection of it. I stopped drinking but it sent me back to drugs and was soon injecting again.

“Over a decade I had several prison sentences and have suffered drug induced psychosis and was homeless for years at a time. I got to the stage where I lost all my teeth, I had hepatitis and didn’t expect to live for long. I couldn’t cope with life and my addictions; I was very afraid.

“I knew I had to stop so I could go to my son’s wedding and knew I needed help. Someone on the street helped me to get help from a drugs project and I haven’t looked back since.

“I got clean and in May 2013 went to my son’s wedding and saw my mum and dad who thought they would never see me alive again. On Christmas Eve I went to see my youngest son. It was the first time I’d seen him since he was 16, eight years earlier.

“The people I listened to when I was trying to get clean were the people who had been in recovery and it made me realise that if they can do it, I could. You get inspired by people who have been to hell and back.

“I’m now an Expert by Experience for WY-FI, I volunteer at the Recovery Café for Bridge in Bradford, I also do outreach and studying for a an NVQ in Health and Social Care.

“I enjoy giving time, it’s a positive. I’ve taken so much from society for so long, I need to give something back. It helps me feel good about myself but also gives me a purpose. I will be 17 months clean soon and doing well in recovery. I am in a healthy relationship and looking forward to the rest of my life.”

alison.bellamy@ypn.co.uk

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