FEATURE: Hitchin offers a safe haven for the homeless

Layth Yousif visited the North Herts Sanctuary to discuss homelessness.

Layth Yousif visited the North Herts Sanctuary to discuss homelessness. - Credit: Getty Images/Hemera

Comet reporter Layth Yousif meets the staff of the North Herts Sanctuary and talks to a man they helped to start again.

North Herts Sanctuary project director Barbara Howard and project manager Gboyega Adetunji.

North Herts Sanctuary project director Barbara Howard and project manager Gboyega Adetunji. - Credit: Archant

Darren doesn’t beat about the bush when he describes the problems in his past – and the new hope he has found this year.

“Christmas has always been a bad time of the year for me,” he told me.

“But I’m looking forward to it a little bit more this year thanks to the shelter’s help.

“If it hadn’t been for their help I would say there might have been a chance I wouldn’t be here talking to you now.”

Darren has been a victim of homelessness – but there were people ready and willing to put a roof over his head when he would otherwise have been out on the street.

We’re at the North Herts Sanctuary, a nondescript building on a roundabout in Hitchin’s Nightingale Road, the place where desperate people knock on the door when they need shelter and don’t know where else to go.

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Project director Barbara Howard gives me a history lesson. She says: “We started off as a night shelter. We would help over the bitter winter months and would take people from all over North Herts.

“Over time there was a real need for a night shelter for anyone who is homeless, male or female between the ages of 18 to 69 in and around Hitchin and the surrounding areas. Stevenage Haven took over the service provision at the Hitchin hostel in July.

“People become homeless for a range of reasons. It could be drugs or drink, mental health issues, people losing their jobs.

“They may have lost their homes as a result of a breakdown in a relationship or relationships and had to move out of the family home.

“It could happen to anyone.

“The community has been very helpful. This shelter has been helped by the churches and charities and from local businesses.

“The feedback has been very good from people who have used our services, and also from police.

“We try and help everybody. We are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Since we have done that we give all people who stay with us a licence agreement which details what we expect of them, and what they need to do to work with us and address their problems.

“We also help put people back into work. We offer internet access and a telephone so they can apply for jobs.”

Project manager Gboyega Adetunji, known as Ade, added: “To be able to do this job you must have a passion for helping people. We do not judge anyone, all we ask is they try and help face their problems with our help.

“It is a challenging job, but it is very rewarding. We get Christmas cards from people who have used our services, letting us know they are now in work or have moved on and are beating their addictions.

“Essentially we support those who want our support – which is the vast majority of people.”

Darren, who had previously used the shelter, told his story: “I split up with my wife about three years ago. I was ‘sofa surfing’ with friends for a while before things got worse and I ended up here.

“I have to admit I was struggling when I got here. But they made me feel welcome and supported me.

“I dread to think where I would be without their help as I felt suicidal.”

Things are now looking up for Darren.

He’d applied for a job with a haulage firm the previous week, and while I was there the call he had been waiting for came through.

Visibly elated by his change in fortune, he told me: “I can’t believe I’ve just been offered a job! I’m so excited.

“I couldn’t have got the job without the support of everyone here.

“I was in a bad way but now I’m going to have a great Christmas hopefully!”

It’s another success story. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but staff member Debbie Harpur said with a smile: “This job makes you feel like you are making a difference to people’s lives.

“I love trying to help people get their lives back on track – and we all love it when we get a good news story like Darren’s.

“I love my job, all of us here do.”