The London Church giving a Home to People even Charities won’t Help


Article, The Guardian Newspaper 
by Amelia Hill
4th July, 2016

View original Article on The Guardian Newspaper website.


Alex Gyasi at the church
Alex Gyasi: ‘The long-term impact this project has on these human beings … is priceless.’ Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian


T
he risks of offering a home to 50 destitute men – most of them addicted to alcohol or drugs or suffering mental health problems – were fully apparent to the congregation of the Highway House church in Tottenham. But seven years ago, the congregation decided to transform their church into a homeless shelter for some of the most marginalised people in society: those whom even the statutory homeless charities could not, or would not, help.

A report launched on Monday indicates that for every £1 invested in the project, up to £8 is returned to society.

Based in a bleak industrial park in Tottenham, north London – one of the most deprived wards in England – the church turned over the space it had been using for their children’s Sunday school and youth club, so the men had somewhere to store their few ragged possessions. And after every church service, worshippers got used to stacking their chairs against the walls so the men could lay out their mattresses and take over the space.

But even more fundamentally, the congregation – themselves largely immigrants subsisting on low incomes – agreed to donate between 10% and 20% of their household incomes to the project, raising about £80,000 a year between them.

Marcia Bravo, a carer with two daughters who earns about £15,000 a year, gives 10% of her salary to the homeless project.

“Giving so much money goes against human desires,” she said. “My daughters and I have to make sacrifices and it’s not easy. My friends think I’m stupid. There are lots of things I could do with the money I donate every month: take my daughters on holiday, for example. But I can do that later: these men need help now.”

Hannah Adu donates some of her income to Highway House.
Hannah Adu donates some of her income to Highway House. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

Hannah Adu, who earns £20,000 a year as a self-employed advocate adviser, agreed. She said: “If I sat down and did a risk or financial analysis, I would never help these men. But then I would never see the transformation: they arrive off the street, completely broken and leave with dignity and hope.”

Men of every nationality, from their early 20s to late 70s, are referred to the church by hospitals across London, including University College London hospitals, East London and City mental health trust, Guy’s and St Thomas’s and the Royal Free hospital. Police give the church’s address to people who turn to them for help. The Reverend Pastor Alex Gyasi receives at least three phone calls a day from statutory charities, including the British Red Cross and the Refugee Council, asking him to take people in.

“Literally no one else is helping these men,” said Gyasi. “But these men aren’t vetted before they come to us, so we get burglars, rapists and murderers. It’s not smooth sailing: we do get violence.

“At the beginning, it was very challenging for the congregation and we did lose members,” he added. “They didn’t want to share their church with alcoholics and drug addicts. People feared for the safety of their children. That’s understandable: there were risks involved: these men aren’t necessarily ‘nice’ or grateful, and I only throw out an average of five people a year because even if they misbehave, our emphasis is on rehabilitation.

“But we work relentlessly with these men to sort out their problems and once the congregation began to see the transformation of lives – people with no hope getting hope; families being put back together; marriages restored and children getting their fathers back; the men no longer alcoholic, addicted and violent – then they realised the long-term impact this project has on these human beings. [It] is priceless.”

After running for seven years, the project now has independent endorsement: a report by the Institute for Health and Human Development at the University of East London has found that for every £1 invested in Highway House, £5-£8 is returned to society.

Launched on Monday, the institute’s report found that Highway House saves councils almost £110,000 a year in temporary accommodation and more than £92,000 in reduced burden on unemployment benefits. The alleviation on mental health services is worth over £73,000, the reduced strain on A&E saves the NHS almost £25,000. The reduction in crime is worth about £3,500.

Mabel Owusu-Mensah and her children
Mabel Owusu-Mensah and her children. She gives 10% of her £33,000 salary to the project. Photograph: Martin Godwin for the Guardian

“In extreme cases, the work of Highway House not only saves people’s lives but also saves considerable resources to the public purse,” said Dr Marcello Bertotti, co-author of the report. “It is also important to recognise that beyond these numbers, Highway House provides life-changing support for homeless people who have not received help through more established statutory support organisations. In this sense, Highway House caters for one of the most marginalised groups within the homeless population.”

Now the project is hoping to expand. Gyasi wants to find new premises so the project can accommodate more people. “We want to be able to take in women. We want to provide in-house advocacy, employment training, help in setting up social enterprises and more structured help to get the men back on their feet,” he said.

“We have the know-how and energy. But we’re forced to rely too much on the generosity of our congregation, who themselves are not rich, because substantial funding is only available to charities who can afford professional fundraisers,” he added. “The ironic thing is that we’re constantly asked by these bigger charities to give accommodation to men they can’t house: I get an average of three calls a day from these charities.”

Gyasi’s ambitions are encouraged by the report’s author. “Highway House serves relatively few people and could increase its scale substantially, and thus social value could increase with it,” said Bertotti. “Any investment in Highway House that may help it grow and provide a service to a larger number of people will yield a higher social return on investment and so saving to the public.”

Mabel Owusu-Mensah, a nurse at the Royal Free hospital, has three children and gives 10% of her £33,000 salary to the project. “I give more and do more when I can afford it,” she said. “I buy clothes and toiletries for the men, and food too.

“It’s a significant amount of our family income and yes, I could spend it on my children or save for our futures, but these men will suffer if we don’t help them right now,” she addded. “And anyway, everyone pays for these men’s isolation and rejection one way or another: if we don’t help them when they’re on the streets, we’ll all pay through our taxes for the cost of their crimes, the hospitals and mental health institutions.”

Story of Kamilla

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Kamilla was in Cyprus, with her husband, who is Nigerian. They decided to come to London for a better life for both of them and their first child – who was on the way.


So they decided that she would go ahead of her husband and stay with his family, until he had saved enough to join her. She arrived full of hope and was shocked to find that her husbands family simply turned her away. She knew no-one and had nowhere to go and her life on the streets began.

Two kind people she had met at a day centre, Jacek and Slawek knew at once that they had to ask Rev. Alex to help her. Jacek and Slawek were residents at Highway House and they asked Rev. Alex if he could help. Rev. Alex had agreed to take her on, believing fully that it would only be for a few days. He was certain that she would be eligible for emergency accommodation. At that time at Highway House she was the only pregnant woman amongst only a handful of other women at the shelter. Rev. Alex felt concerned about both her welfare and her safety and wondered if the men would treat her with the gentleness and respect she needed.

She was welcomed into Highway House, but Alex knew he would have to act fast to get her a more suitable home. So, a few days later they both set out with the certain goal of securing her a suitable place to live. As they walked out of the third housing office, having been rejected, they walked in silence. Rev. Alex was shocked to learn that yet again there was nothing that anyone could do. Quite simply she was not eligible until she had the child.

The residents of Highway House soon adjusted to the fact that there was a pregnant woman in the house. Rev. Alex watched with both concern and intrigue as to how the men interacted with Kamilla. He was pleasantly surprised to see the deep respect and care they gave her. She began to attend Church and people brought her clothes and other items that she needed.

As the birth neared, some friends offered her a room and she happily moved out of the shelter. It seemed all was looking up for her. Sadly, not long after the birth, she and her friends were evicted by the landlord and she had to return to the shelter once more.

The job was back on to find her accommodation, and Rev. Alex believed that she would now be eligible for a home. However the authorities were still unable to help and Kamilla couldn’t stay in a homeless shelter with a child to look after. Rather than waiting on her husband, she decided her best option would be to return to Poland and to her family. . Rev. Alex contacted Thamesreach, an organisation that assists in repatriation. Over the phone, they kindly agreed to purchase a ticket for her return, but the agreement was dependent on a visit with Kamilla at Highway House for an assessment.

On the day of the visit, Rev. Alex sat with Kamilla and her baby and answered a string of questions. All seemed to be going well as Alex explained how Kamilla had no family to go to, no help available and that Highway House had been her last resort.

Much to their shock, the woman announced that what Rev. Alex had done was illegal. She listed a string of breaches in regulations regulations and that because of this she simply couldn’t help.

Rev. Alex was almost indignant. He went on to list all of the organisations that he had approached to get Kamilla the help that she needed and their response. He even pulled a file out of letters which rejection after rejection of help for Kamilla.

The woman quickly backed down and said her goodbyes leaving behind the paperwork to be completed in order to get Kamilla back home. Rev. Alex wasted no time in completing it and posting it back. Within a few days Kamilla was saying farewell to Rev. Alex and her friends at Highway House. She had received the help she needed at long last, she had a ticket and was on her way back to Poland with her baby.

Later that year, Kamilla and her husband called Rev. Alex from Poland to wish him and his family a happy Christmas – they had been reunited. Two years later, Kamilla made a  an unannounced visit during a Sunday service. The baby she carried during her stay at Highway House was now three years old.

Kamilla, her husband and their children now live in London, in their own home.


Related Links
Take a look at Life inside Highway House – Image Gallery