Yorkshire has experienced an alarming rise in homelessness with the number of rough sleepers more than doubling in the past seven years. But a pioneering project in Leeds led by a former addict is trying to tackle the root of the problem through helping others face their demons and turn their lives around. Chris Burn reports.
“This isn’t a job this, it is a privilege. The most rewarding thing for me is when I see addicts come into this programme and their eyes are dead and after just a few weeks, their eyes start to come alive again.”
John Davis speaks from experience when he addresses the men taking part in the rehabilitation project known as The Growing Rooms based at St George’s Crypt homeless charity. The 53-year-old therapeutic drug and alcohol worker has come through his own hellish addiction problems to get to a place where he can now help others address theirs.
“I started taking drugs from a really young age. I went to prison a couple of times but just carried on,” he says.
“I ended up getting married and having children but I wasn’t a father or a husband. The marriage went and my addiction progressed. I was a weekend dad, using in front of my kids.
“I put my addiction before my kids and lost them for a number of years out of my life. I thought the only way out was to take my own life. I ended up in a psychiatric unit in 2009.
“One of the nurses in charge of my recovery was a recovering addict himself and got me a place on a programme that had really helped him.”
The same nurse told John how he had helped another patient while on the unit - setting him on a new path in life once he started his journey out of recovery and back into society.
He originally went back to his previous job as a tiler but decided he wanted instead to help others.
“That is why I do this job - to make a difference to someone’s life and give them that freedom from an active addiction, which is what I have got now,” he says.
“For me what we have identified as success is not just to get people clean and living in a bedsit somewhere in Leeds but to make them a productive member of society.”
John came up with the idea of The Growing Rooms project, which involves residents living together for a year and sees them participate in therapy sessions along with participating in volunteer work.
The aim is not just to keep them free of drugs and alcohol but to equip them for life after recovery, helping them to build up work experience, write a CV and set up bank accounts in some cases so they have a better long-term chance of getting a job and participating in society while not relapsing.
It is far from an easy process - a key element involves participants addressing their causes of their self-destructive behaviour and acknowledging how they have hurt loved ones along the way, while there is a strict policy which means anyone found to have relapsed and taken drugs or alcohol is immediately removed from the project.
John says the policy is tough but necessary. “It is the only way. You have got to think of the other guys in the house. It is a tried and tested method that works.
“We don’t make them homeless, we give them a compassionate bed in the project for three nights so they are arrange things with a housing association. They can reapply for residence after 28 days.”
After John came up with the idea for the project, he struggled to get funding to get it off the ground before being advised to contact St George’s Crypt, which has been helping the city’s homeless since the 1930s.
In the wake of the Great Depression, the project was started in the crypt of St George’s Church by Vicar Percy Donald Robins.
In the decades since, St George’s Crypt and its staff and volunteers have helped thousands of homeless and vulnerable people in a variety of different ways.
The continuing need for its services have been highlighted by recent figures published by the National Audit Office, which show the number of rough sleepers in Yorkshire and The Humber has increased by 139 per cent in the past seven years, going up from 72 to 172.
In the same time frame, there has been a 69 per cent rise in the number of cases where local councils have stepped in to prevent someone becoming homeless - with 28,537 cases last year alone across the region.
Nationally, the figures are similarly bleak, with the numbers of rough sleepers in England now at over 4,000 - 232 per cent higher than they were in 2009/10.
Martin Patterson, development director at St George’s, says “there is more complexity around homelessness than there ever was in the past”.
“For the wider group of people who come to the Crypt, we get about 100 people through the doors each week and no two people are the same.
“In the 1930s when this was set up, it was started to help people who had served in the First World War and because of the Great Depression, found themselves without a job and on the streets.
“Now I could probably list about 10 or 20 different reasons why people end up homeless. But the big common thing is a complete feeling of a lack of self-esteem. People feel very low self-worth. Through the programme, we are saying to people you can break through this.
“What we do here is fairly unique. What we are seeking to do is take people, many of them sleeping rough, to be in a situation where they are ready to move on in life and make their own way independently.
“It came about through our own awareness it is fine for us to provide the basics here - food, shelter and clothing - but many of the people who present here have larger issues which need to be confronted. If we address the issue of addiction, you have a much higher chance of success.”
St George’s has been hosting the Growing Rooms scheme for a couple of years and currently has the capacity to deal with up to 20 people at a time, with spaces for eight people to live in two residential properties.
Currently, the scheme is only for men and there is a waiting list for residential beds - but The Growing Rooms scheme will move to new premises before the end of the year where it will also be able to help women and cope with increased demand.
Chris Lane, training and engagement manager at St George’s Crypt, says: “Some guys that joined Growing Rooms came through the door of the Crypt as homeless and then we found out they had got an addiction problem.
“Growing Rooms is trying to make sure when you are 12 to 13 months down the line they can take the next steps and move forward because they have things like work experience, a CV, a passport and a bank account.”
John says word is still growing about the fledgling scheme. “There is nothing else like this in Leeds. St George’s is leading the way in this. Hopefully this is just the start of it - we do hope to get more and more housing.”
For the men on the project, some have been there for months, others just weeks. But there is a common thread between them - a determination to conquer the addictions that have ruined their lives and destroyed relationships with loved ones for years.
Problems with heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol that started in childhood are common, and while not all of them have experienced homelessness, many explain how they had been at their lowest ebb, close to death and contemplating suicide before coming through the doors.
Gareth says his addiction problems stretch back decades but he now feels he has a genuine opportunity for a fresh start in life.
“I was just in a blur for 28 years. When I first met John, I’ll be honest, I didn’t know whether I was going to grasp this opportunity or not. I told him I was still using on and off.
“Once you have started the programme, you get a purpose. You get a new beginning and it is up to you to grab that opportunity. You can see changes in yourself and where it can lead. It is down to you.”
Like most of the others in the group, Sean has tried and failed to beat his addictions in the past. But he says he has new belief in himself.
“The hope and dream of it is to get myself back on track. I’m back on the straight and narrow but I need to stay there. I don’t want to press the self-destruct button. That is what I have done in the past and I need to change and continue moving forward.”
Chris adds that for him, admitting the way in which his actions have affected others has been a difficult but vital part of the process. “Addiction affects everybody. It affects people I have sold drugs to, it affects my mum, my children, it affects society as a whole. This is a wonderful programme, it enables and equips you to deal with it all.
“It is a relief to understand I have a disease and there is support available. It is scary thinking I have to face everybody that I have hurt but it is freeing as well.
“Addiction doesn’t give you the chance to be yourself fully and from the age of 12 I was on drugs. Now I have that chance to be myself.”
John, who started the programme just six weeks ago after addiction left him perilously close to death, says people who knew him before are struggling to recognise him as the same person already.
“Ever since I started nothing but good things have happened. Everything has changed. Everything that has been a problem for me I’m getting help with in every way. It is all because of this programme and what it does for you, it puts you back on an even keel. I’m loving my life now - I’m involved with my son, I have even spoken to my ex-wife.
“It has had a grip of me since I was 15, it has lost me an army career, it has lost me job after job. I had problems to start with but the drugs magnified my problems 100 times. Now I have got the tools to deal with this stuff.
“It always ends up in the same place - you lose everything and you have to start again.
“I just hope to be a normal, functioning part of society, hopefully I will have a job and everything life that. I’m never going back to where I was before.”
Now six months into the scheme, Simon started the project after two overdoses.
“I had actually died, my heart had stopped. One of the staff in the Crypt kept my heart going. My disease was so powerful that still didn’t stop me. I overdosed again.”
He says while he had managed lengthy periods of sobriety in the past, this course has for the first time made him address the root causes of his problems.
“I have been using drugs for 30-odd years. I have had times when I have been clean, sometimes for months, sometimes for years.
“I had been clean for six years and then it got a grip of me. I got kicked out in February - I lost my partner and my children. From there, I lived on the streets in Leeds city centre for maybe three weeks.
“What this is about for me is change, you have to change yourselves and your behaviours. This is one of the gifts that Growing Rooms gives to us. I previously stayed free of drugs for six years but didn’t change anything about myself and it was more painful than using.
“The first thing you have to learn is to be honest with yourself first. It is about honesty, openness and willingness. This programme allows us to do that.”
‘Once in a generation’ chance to change housing policy
St George’s Crypt intends to expand its work across Leeds, with officials describing its plans as a “once-in-a-generation” chance to tackle housing problems for vulnerable people in the city.
City architecture firm Brewster Bye is a long-term supporter of St George’s Crypt and company director Mark Henderson is also a director of the recently formed St George’s Crypt Development Company.
St George’s has been hosting the Growing Rooms scheme for a couple of years and currently has spaces for eight people to live in two residential properties.
Currently, the scheme is only for men and there is a waiting list for residential beds – but The Growing Rooms scheme will move to new premises before the end of the year where it will also be able to help women and cope with extra demand.
Mr Henderson says further expansion is planned to help support people get back on their feet.
“St George’s Crypt has been making a genuine difference to homeless and disadvantaged people in Leeds for many decades. We’re now at a point where we can take this to the next level and have a once in a generation opportunity to make a decisive change in how homes are created for people in housing need in Leeds.
“Through St George’s Crypt Development Company and by utilising funding from the Right to Buy grant programme, we can create a small number of purpose-built homes that will act as a blueprint for both St George’s Crypt and Leeds City Council to expand on in the future. We’re now hoping to secure two planning applications, with a view to starting work next year, and we’re also exploring further additional sites around Leeds.
“The excellent work of the Crypt’s Growing Rooms addiction recovery project is another vital piece in the vision of turning lives around and providing a pathway towards independence.
“There is no doubt that these initial homes, combined with St George’s Crypt’s vast experience in supporting those who have fallen on hard times, will act as a valuable stepping stone for people who are committed to improving their lives, as they get back on their feet and ultimately prepare to live independently.”