Meet the Hitchin-based charity that aims to prevent the ‘vicious cycle’ of homelessness
- Credit: Archant
A trustee of a Hitchin-based charity for the homeless is calling for greater co-operation from charities, outreach services, local authorities and national government to help curb the rise of rough sleeping.
Grahame Williams, of Hitchin, has been a trustee since 2014 at Helping Herts Homeless - a charity that offers emergency accommodation in Hitchin and other support services for the homeless.
He says helping vulnerable people is in his nature, and remembers encounters he had with homeless people 12 years ago at the Hitchin church he attends.
They would ask Grahame for a sandwich, or a few pounds, and from there he would strike up a conversation and learn more about their situation. He credits these days as the start of his journey towards Helping Herts Homeless.
Fast forward to today and, as a trustee, Grahame's passion for the topic still shines through. He is determined to help prevent the spread of homelessness and says it would be "a terrific achievement" if his role didn't exist.
He said: "Homelessness in North Herts is increasing year on year and it's a really big issue we are facing as a society. It doesn't matter where you are, we are all seeing this issue get worse over time.
"I want to see more solutions, especially more co-operative solutions. For example, we need to take another look at social housing and ask ourselves: What percent of that is genuinely affordable?
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"At Helping Herts Homeless, our next goal is to look at how we can actively prevent and reduce homelessness in our area. If you miss your rent, you're made redundant, you're going through a divorce, the next step could realistically be homelessness. It's a vicious cycle."
Formerly North Herts Sanctuary, Helping Herts Homeless has been operating as a hostel for rough sleepers since 1992 - with 17 beds in shared accomodation providing showers, washing and laundry facilities and some food for its residents.
Over the last 28 years, hundreds of people have passed through their doors and benefitted from the support network, provided by Stevenage Haven, which includes counselling, mental health support or referral to further treatment.
Grahame said: "I've seen lives changed in this hostel. There have been people involved in substance abuse, who gain confidence, get their act together and move onto permanent accomodation. It has been total transformations.
"It's usually these people who are first to put back into the communities they become a part of, but only if they get help at that early stage."
Volunteers themselves make up a huge part of the success of Helping Herts Homeless.
Katherine Bridge, who has volunteered with the charity for 20 years, helps with the organisation of fundraisers and co-ordinating her fellow volunteers.
She says at the turn of the millenium homelessness wasn't as visible in Hitchin, but today it certainly seems to be more of an issue - particularly as the Nightingale Road hostel is always at capacity.
"If government targets are to reduce homelessness, why do we need to build a new, larger hostel? I think the fact we feel the need to expand speaks for itself on the issue really."
After changing its name in September 2018 to reflect the charity's new focus, Helping Herts Homeless now operate as a county-wide strategic hub for other organisations involved in homelessness, alongside offering their temporary accommodation.
Grahame said: "Now, we are in a position to help other organisations in our field. Becoming a strategic hub has enabled us to open up new areas of donation and support. Many great charities have new ideas. Our next step is to provide them with central, strategic support."
But Grahame says Helping Herts Homeless, or any organisation or local authority for that matter, can't do it alone. He is adamant that there needs to be more cross-level co-operation at all levels of the homelessness crisis.
"If local authorities want to seriously address homelessness, we all need to get together to co-ordinate our efforts," he said.
"A great example is Christmas. We had an outpouring of donations and support, enough to last until March or April, for which we are very grateful. But this is a 52-week issue and it doesn't go away. A rough sleeper in winter could still be there come summer."
For more information about Helping Herts Homeless, visit their new website at helpinghertshomeless.org.uk