A life-saving sanctuary for the homeless in the heart of Stevenage
- Credit: Archant
Comet reporter Jacob Thorburn has visited Stevenage Haven, a charity that supports rough sleepers in the town and across North Hertfordshire, for an eye-opening conversation on homelessness.
When first approaching Stevenage Haven, you might wonder if Google Maps has directed you to the wrong place.
A smart, Victorian building nestled between a residential street, overlooking a cricket ground and within a five minute walk to Aldi, it takes me 15 minutes of walking around the Haven's car park to realise I'm actually here.
I'm not sure what I expected to find, but a warm smile greets me as I sign in at the reception desk. Resident or receptionist, everyone looks happy here.
As I wander through the building, recently renovated to accomodate 40 beds, the scope of this facility jumps out right away.
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Clients have access to a computer room, pool and table tennis tables, washing machines, daily food served at the canteen and other support services the Haven provides. There's trips to a nearby gym, one-one support worker sessions and most importantly, clients get a bed to sleep on every night, fresh towels and a walk-in shower and toilet.
Like the rest of her staff, Barbara Howard - chief executive of Stevenage Haven - is passionate about helping rough sleepers and loves her job.
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However, she says that recently the Haven has seen a significant rise in both the number of referrals and clients with more complex mental health needs.
She said: "Nationally, we know that rough sleeping has increased immensely. Stevenage and North Herts does have a problem with rough sleeping."
But, there are concerns over the charity's future as they are dependent upon Herts County Council's resources that are continually stretched thinner by budget cuts.
Barbara says: "I don't want to bring up the B-word, but it has such an effect on the way services are provided. The future is quite scary.
"We are a charity, not a business, that is our ethos. We are standing against much larger organisations, with greater resources."
Speaking with one former resident, who credits the Haven with saving his life, it's clear to see the immense value that organisations like this have on society's most vulnerable.
Chris, 59, was born in Hitchin and has fond memories of growing up in Stevenage - catching newts in a nearby pond during the summer in the 1960s.
Life turned upside down for Chris at 19 after he discovered heroin and went to prison. He says drugs made him lose everything: his family, his relationship and his home.
He describes his experience being homeless as "horrendous" and says that some days he wished for an end to his life.
When he first came to the Haven in 2007, he was still using and drinking, which is against their policy. With the charity's support, he says this is the first time in 40 years he has been sober.
"The people are like family, the staff have bent over backwards to help me. Because of their help, I felt ready to beat my addiction.
"Now, I can hear the birds and see the colours of life. All the things I loved as a child that I had forgotten."
Chris currently lives in a move-on property, a small cottage outside of Hertfordshire. His eyes light up as he describes the cottage's beauty and his "lovely neighbours."
"The Haven are still behind me. I can sit here and tell you this story today because of them."
Now, Chris says he is in a happy place, with a front door of his own and a bright future.
Chanelle Gutteridge, 19, grew up in the St Nicholas area of Stevenage, but after a family dispute and trouble with the police she became homeless in June 2018.
At 18-years-old, she would self-harm and binge drink when she was on the streets - and her mental health was at breaking point.
Chanelle has been a resident at the Haven for just over a year now, and her confidence and self-esteem have massively improved thanks to the mental health support the charity offers.
"The haven have provided everything for me. They've never given up on me and now I'm thriving," Chanelle says.
Now, with her life turned around, she's due to start working at the new Wagamama's restaurant that is opening next week.
To find out more about Stevenage Haven, visit stevenagehaven.org.uk