DATE POSTED: 08/09/2011
40 years of providing services to homeless people in Norwich
As we launch the new website we also start thinking about how we might mark our 40th anniversary as an organisation. Starting from humble beginnings with a group of volunteers St. Martins has evolved into a hard-working and forward-thinking local charity. But we are still single-focused and still Norwich-based, and still dependent to a large degree on the support of a wide range of Norfolk donors – individuals, churches and community groups. We have the same can-do and won’t-take-no-for-an-answer spirit of our founding group of volunteers. Like them we never give up on anyone. Like them we treat everyone with respect. The best way to mark our 40th birthday is, we think, simply to carry on. Will St Martins exist in 2052? We would all like to think there would be no need to have a homeless charity in this fine city by then – but those first volunteers in the early 1970’s probably thought that about the 21st century.
We expend a lot of energy at St. Martins planning the future. Where do we want to be this time next year? Can we extract even greater value from our limited charitable resources? How is the demand for our services changing? Who can we partner with to extend the range of our services?
Nevertheless 40 years is a significant anniversary. A little reflection on how things have changed in the field of homelessness, and what St. Martins has learnt along the way is, I think, allowed.
Firstly, like most local voluntary organisations kick-started by volunteers we have learnt that you need resources if you are going to endure – money, buildings, people and (in the last 15 years) information technology. We’ve learnt to make our scarce resources go a long way – silk purses and sow’s ears and all that! As well as our annual fund-raising efforts the Trustees are indebted to both Norfolk County Council and Norwich City Council for choosing us as their contractor to provide specific services and for leasing us buildings where we can provide those services. We take neither the contracts or the leases for granted. The current period of challenge for the national economy has, of course, rippled down to local charities such as St. Martins – just at a time when demand for our services looks to be steadily increasing.
Secondly we have learnt that homelessness as a social problem changes as quickly as the wider society…..and your charitable activities must keep up with those changes, indeed be slightly ahead of them if possible. 40 years ago the level of alcohol and substance misuse was not as prevalent as it currently is amongst those who present themselves as homeless at our door. The gap between the supply of and demand for social housing and the private rented sector is now much wider and consequently the re-housing route is more tortuous. It is likely to become even more tortuous in the future. As a result of structural change in the economy few people outside of the professional classes now expect to be continuously employed between leaving full-time education and their pensionable age. Competition for jobs is now much, much tougher. Support from extended family networks still exists but not in the same tangible way it did 40 years ago. It was bad enough to be homeless and alone on the streets of Norwich in 1972 – but the barriers to self-advancement and to being included in mainstream society were not set as high back then as they are now. Paradoxically the opportunities extended to homeless people to overcome those higher barriers are now much greater.
Thirdly we have learnt that temporary solutions for homeless people are just that – temporary. This has been the key learning point for Trustees, staff and stakeholders over four decades. Providing shelter, food and clothing at the point of contact with the homeless individual is crucial – but unless the deeper issues that led to homelessness are addressed then progress towards re-integration into community life is unlikely to be sustained. This might seem obvious – but choosing the right services and then delivering them in the right way is not so obvious. For example most of the government-sponsored into-work schemes, and indeed most formal education systems, are simply not appropriate for our service users. This is why St. Martins is so proud of our self-funded Under One Roof training and education project and our co-management of The Big Lottery funded LEAP (Learning, Education and Accommodation Project).