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
The 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.”

The Pastor Bringing Hope To The Homeless

Article, The Voice Newspaper  by Marcia Dixon  7th December, 2014 View original Article on The Voice Newspaper website.
FOR THE past five years, Pastor Alexi Gyasi and his congregation at the Highway of Holiness church in Tottenham, north London, have been carving out a unique ministry – working with the homeless. What’s particularly unique about this church based ministry, is that not only does it provide the homeless people with whom they work, food, pastoral care, help with finding jobs and healthcare, they actually provide them with shelter within the church premises. At any one time there can be up to 50 homeless people sleeping in the church. During the five years the church has worked with the homeless they’ve housed and helped over 600 people, representing 50 nationalities. Pastor Alexi revealed that it was his faith in God that inspired him to do this work. He recalled, “When our evangelism team went out one Saturday afternoon my wife came across two homeless men and directed them to our church for help. They came and we began to help them with a daily meal and then with an opportunity to shower. One day there were 13 of them eating and one came to me very suicidal saying that he wanted to kill himself due to so many things that were going on in his life at the time. The Holy Spirit told me that if I let him go I would not see him again! It was since that moment I realised I was called to work with the homeless.” IMPACT There’s no doubt that Highway of Holiness’ work is having a positive impact. Many of those the church has assisted with have gone on to get jobs and find accommodation, and such is the gratitude amongst some for the help they received, they’ve continued to support the church’s work. Also, a number of men the church has helped have become Christians. Eastern Europeans have been drawn in particular to the Highway of Holiness’ work, so much so, that the church now holds a special Sunday service for the many Romanians they support. Keen to share the success of the church’s work with the wider community, Pastor Gyasi recently published The Test Room, a book which chronicles the highs and lows of his work with the homeless. He shared: “It is about how God prepared myself, my family and church, unknowingly to us, for our ministry to the homeless and the tests and trials we faced in the early years of the shelter.” He added, “I wanted to encourage people, especially church leaders that they should not allow the fear of the unknown to prevent them from doing what God has asked them to and revive those that are implementing their God given vision but are facing challenges.” The next few weeks are set to be busy ones for the Highway of Holiness. They’ll be organising a Christmas dinner for the 50 people currently housed by the church, and will be hosting the Mayor of Haringey Councillor Kaushika Amin who put in a request to view Highway of Holiness’ work. Pastor Gyasi has big plans for 2015. He recalled: “My plans for the homeless project are to raise funds to be able to purchase a hostel in which our residents can live and to attract more professional help in the areas of fundraising, property acquisition and volunteers.
Posted on: 07/12/2014 10:00 AM

Church Relieving the Plight of Those in Desperate Poverty

Barnet and Whetstone Press  31st March, 2010 View original Article on the Barnet and Whetstone Press website.
FOR THE past five years, Pastor Alexi Gyasi and his congregation at the Highway of Holiness church in Tottenham, north London, have been carving out a unique ministry – working with the homeless. When the recession hit and the construction industry collapsed, eastern European men who had come to Haringey in search of work instead faced destitution and a miserable life struggling on the streets.Penniless, unable to speak fluent English and stranded thousands of miles from home, the migrants were among the hardest hit when the industry caved in and job openings for labourers, plasterers and tilers literally vanished overnight. It was only when outreach workers from an African church in Tottenham started to speak to these men, forced into sleeping rough on the streets of Haringey, they realised there was a huge opportunity to help lift them out of their plight. Now Reverend Alex Gyasi, of the Highway Of Holiness Church in Fountayne Road, has gone from cooking up a hot meal or two last summer to providing a sympathetic ear and space for 35 men sleep every night – as well as all the tools necessary to help them find work and place them firmly back on the road to recovery. Reverend Gyasi said the work had been his “most challenging but most exciting” to date. “These two men knocked on the church’s door one Monday, came in and told me about their problems,” he told the Advertiser. “They were basically destitute with nowhere to sleep, no clothing and nowhere to have a bath or shower. We started by giving them something to eat, which was their most immediate need. After about a week they explained they were unable to go and look for a job because of the way they looked and smelled. The nearest place to get a shower if you’re homeless is London Bridge and they just didn’t have the means to get there. So we decided to take out one of our toilets and turn it into a shower which they could use. They came out glowing – it really improved their self-esteem and confidence and made us realise the small things can make such a big difference.” As temperatures plunged, Reverend Gyasi realised he needed to do more, so offered the church as a place to bed down for a couple of nights a week. This soon became five, then six, then seven nights a week. He said: “They take their showers here and we also have recreational activities during the day such as table tennis, pool, TV and we also have free internet access. We teach them English on Mondays too and Haringey Advisory Group On Alcohol comes in on Wednesdays. “Although not all, a lot of the men have problems with alcohol dependency and huge health issues too. Some of them have been homeless for only a few months but others have slept rough for three or four years. We need to get them off alcohol and give them a chance of finding a job. Our feeling was that we needed to give a full provision of help to really address their problems.” Most of the men are Polish but others are from Latvia, Romania, Lithuania and the Czech Republic and the church also currently helps one woman – between 30 to 35 people in total. Haringey Council recently organised a day for representatives from the Housing Service, NHS, Haringey Citizens’ Advice Bureau, homelessness charity Thames Reach and Alcoholics Anonymous to visit the church and help the men tap into crucial services they may otherwise not know about. Councillor Kaushika Amin, cabinet member for community cohesion and involvement, paid tribute to the church’s work, saying it had become an “invaluable source of support” to the homeless in Tottenham. For Reverend Gyasi and those who have helped him help the men, the work has been a crucial reminder of how the most vulnerable in society can easily be overlooked. “This has been rewarding – more than rewarding – for us,” he said. “We have seen some really drastic changes and some changes which are painfully slow. But five or six of these men have now found jobs. They are working during the day and sleeping here which will continue until they earn some more money. “There have been some truly beautiful transformations. You just think, wow.” Anyone able to donate funds, food, clothing or who has a suitable property to help sleep the men should contact Highway House on 020 8808 4444, email or visit Email:

Support for Rough Sleepers

Haringey Council  23rd March, 2010 View original Article on the Haringey Council website.
Rough sleepers in Haringey were offered a helping hand to tap into support services in the borough. The Access to Services event saw homeless people given a hot meal and offered advice on what help is available. Organisations including the Housing Service, the NHS, Haringey Citizens Advice Bureau, Thames Reach and Alcoholics Anonymous gave out information, and interpreters were on hand to help those unable to speak English. The event was organised by Haringey Council’s Neighbourhood Management team in partnership with the Highway of Holiness Church, Fountayne Road, Tottenham. Highway of Holiness church provides a homeless shelter service throughout the year, runs outreach clinics and drop-in centres and strives to cater for the needs of local people who are struggling. The church has also seen a recent rise in demand for help from members of Tottenham’s Polish community, many of whom lost their jobs in the recession. Cllr Kaushika Amin, Cabinet Member for Community Cohesion and Involvement, said  “I’m so impressed by the efforts that the Highway of Holiness has gone to in order to reach out to those in need. It’s clear that the church has become an invaluable source of support for many people. We have a responsibility to do what we can to care for vulnerable people, and I hope that the advice offered at the event will have been of use.” Rev Alex Gyasi of the Highway of Holiness church said “The event made a positive impact on the homeless people and I hope that the church and Haringey Council will continue to work together to improve the life chances of the vulnerable in our community.”

Why 50 Homeless Men are Sleeping in a Tottenham Church

Article, The Guardian Newspaper  by Amelia Hill 19th November, 2012 View original Article on The Guardian Newspaper website.
Church refuge for homeless in Haringey
One man tries to get on with his life, surrounded by clothes and luggage, at the Highway of Holiness church giving refuge to the homeless in Tottenham, north London.
Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
  The Highway of Holiness community church – a few dilapidated rooms in a windswept industrial park in Tottenham, north London – used to be a lifeline for local youth. More than eight out of 10 children across Tottenham live in poverty, and this ward is one of the most deprived in England. Yet until recently, the charity of the church's largely immigrant, low-income congregation enabled the pastor, Alex Gyasi, to run an impressive schedule of after-school classes, a youth club, a cooking club and an in-house digital TV channel used to inspire young people to debate current affairs. Since the government's austerity drive began to bite, however, and word spread that Gyasi gives the destitute a space to sleep and a hot meal, the church has been deluged with requests it can't refuse. Two years ago there were two homeless men sleeping on the thinly carpeted floor of the church. Recently, there were 50. When winter hits harder and temperatures drop, Gyasi fears the church will have 90 men crammed into every inch of spare space and he will have to turn people away. The government's deficit reduction plan, it said, would be weighted so "those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest load". It is too early to know what the exact impact of these cuts will be on those whom politicians promised to protect because, deep as they have already been, they are only just beginning. By April 2013, the end of this financial year, there will have been £8.9bn in cuts to welfare spending. Last week, it was announced that further substantial welfare cuts will be made in the autumn statement: an extra £6bn in 2015-16, then £10bn in 2016-17. There are, however, two swaths of cuts that have already taken effect, affecting local authority spending and housing benefit. For the last 18 months, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been tracking how those cuts have hit the frontline in some of the most deprived wards in England: Aston and Ladywood in Birmingham, and five wards in the east of Haringey in north London. Published on Monday, the NEF's report, called Everyday Insecurity: Life at the End of the Welfare State, emphatically rejects the suggestion that the most vulnerable and those with genuine needs are being protected. The report says the services that are being lost are cheaper ones that keep people away from far more expensive acute services, such as A&E, homelessness support and temporary housing. These are real cuts, the report insists, and they will be paid for in human, social and economic costs. This is clear from the men Gyasi welcomes into his church. "We have men referred to us by almost every major hospital and organisation that deals with the homeless," he said, leafing through a thick file of letters from hospitals, including University College London Hospitals, East London and City mental health trust, Guy's and St Thomas' and the Royal Free, as well as the British Red Cross, the Refugee Council and Tottenham MP, David Lammy. "These rooms were supposed to be for our children and for our congregation. Now all that space is given over to the homeless," he sighed. "To help the dispossessed, we have to deprive our own children. But we have no choice: we're the last resort for the poor and marginalised. These are the people who fell through the net and kept falling." The NEF report argues that the true impact of the cuts is the erosion of day-to-day economic security for everyone. "The whole notion of a social safety net is being unravelled," said Joe Penny, co-author of the report. "The safety net has so many holes in it now that anyone, no matter how secure they might think they are, can slip through." According to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the introduction of the benefit cap will see at least 11,390 households in the UK lose £150 a weekin Haringey this will make 6,900 homes unaffordable to families on housing benefits, a report by the Chartered Institute of Housing has said. The safety net, according to Penny, was not tightly knit in the first place, but the voluntary sector filled the gaps. "The government is now eroding the voluntary sector [and] at the same time tearing massive holes in what local government can provide. Benefits are being reduced while council tax, rent and fuel bills are soaring. "To compound the growing income insecurity many people face, some of the most practical and vital public services – such as legal advice, crisis centres and care homes – are being cut." Society is, said Penny, getting to the point where anyone can have a crisis that pushes them down a spiral so precipitous that it is almost impossible to recover. When the Welfare Reform Act comes into force next year, the swingeing cuts to working tax credits will see at least 200,000 couples lose up to £74.34 a week, according to a Child Poverty Action Group calculation based on 2012 rates. The £26,000-a-year cap to housing benefit will affect at least 56,000 households, the DWP has calculated, and they will mainly be large families, lone parents and disabled people. The average affected household, says the DWP, will lose £83 a week from its housing benefit alone. Those who can no longer afford to live in the area will have to move away, potentially giving up jobs, taking children out of schools and exchanging local support networks of family and friends for communities of strangers. Those affected will increasingly find they are no longer able to turn to their local authorities: the average 27% reduction in spending that local governments have had to make saw 24% of disabled adults having their support reduced in 2011. An estimated 800,000 elderly people in need of care now go without any formal support. The forthcoming 20% reduction in council tax benefits for everyone except pensioners will affect 36,000 people in Haringey alone, the NEF report has found. A DWP spokesperson said: "Our reforms will introduce fairness to the welfare system by asking people on benefits to make the same choices about where to live that working families do. "Housing benefit will meet rents of up to £21,000 a year and apart from the most expensive areas in London, around a third of properties will still be available to rent. "We are committed to protecting the most vulnerable and councils have an additional discretionary fund of £190m to help families in difficult situations." But Penny says a "race to the bottom" is the new norm. "This is the thin edge of the wedge," he said. "Guardian readers and those in the higher income brackets are being naive if they think this will not hit them. If services and infrastructure are removed, everyone will notice. Anything that local government don't legally have to provide, they are going to have to get rid of. "Even if Labour get in at the next election, they will not be able to afford to heal the cuts." But summaries and statistics cannot convey the cuts' effects on individuals. The storm clouds can been seen at Citizens Advice bureaux. Sharon Grant, chair of Haringey's CAB, said: "We're like the canary down the mine. We're the first people who pick up what's going on out there and what we're seeing at the moment is a boiling pot whose lid is coming off. We're trying to turn down the heat so it just simmers – but someone keeps stoking the fire." Demand for the borough's CAB services has risen threefold in two years. Residents who want to ensure they are among the limited number of applicants the centre can see each day must start queuing hours before the doors open. Recently, 87-year-old Aston Blackman woke long before it was light to get to the Turnpike Lane office for 6am. At 6.10am, he was joined by 66-year-old Younes Khalaifa. At 6.15, 31-year-old Sergio Araujo arrived. By 7am, there were 11 people in the queue. By 9.30am, there were 49. More turned up every few minutes after that but didn't bother waiting: they knew that because of the service's increasingly limited facilities, only around 25 people can see an adviser each day. With still half an hour to go before the doors opened, Blackman was shivering and wet at the head of the queue. Pointing to a plank of wood overhanging a dustbin, he said: "I sheltered there. But it's been very cold and dark. The sun has come up now but I'm still trembling." Blackman had received a £1,218.63 council tax demand for an original debt of £154,84 accrued, the council claimed, in 1997 – when he was 71 years old, despite already having been on a pension and entitled to full council tax relief for six years. Despite the six-year rule, which means the council is not allowed to recover debt that it has not attempted to claim for that period of time, the letter threatened legal action unless the full sum was paid in seven days. Blackman was bewildered and scared. "As far as I'm aware, I've paid my council tax on time for my entire life," he said, wringing his hands. "I can't afford to pay this. I live on a pension of £50 a week. I don't have any savings. What will happen to me?" Blackman's problem will be ironed out, his CAB adviser said reassuringly, but he was right to risk a chill to be at the front of the queue. Markos Chrysostomou, chief executive of Haringey's CAB, admitted the bureau was struggling to cope with incredible demand: "We're sitting here, facing an ever-increasing tide of demand with ever-diminishing resources." Funding for mental health work has stopped, and specialist legal aid for welfare rights will disappear from CABs, other voluntary agencies including Law Centres and solicitors when the Legal Services Commission withdraws its funding next April. Although Haringey CAB's team of paid and volunteer advisers will continue to offer welfare rights advice – albeit under growing pressure of demand – there will not be a single legal aid welfare benefit specialist working in Haringey. Hackney and Waltham Forest CABs, in east and north-east London respectively, have had a 30% cut in funding, and residents of those boroughs now come to Haringey for help. "People on the margins of crime and drugs will go back into crime," Chrysostomou predicted. Chrysostomou struggled to identify a group that would be unaffected by the cuts. "The reductions in council tax benefits will hit families who are working and on low earnings," he said. "Single people, disabled people and large families will be evicted when the new housing benefit cap comes in." Chrysostomou has lived in Haringey for many years. He is a member of the civic council and helps formulate the policies of neighbourhood child poverty action groups. He says he has never seen anything like the suffering already caused by the cuts. "This need for subsistence charity like food banks is like going back to third world countries," he said. Three miles away from the CAB, Gyasi said he was receiving referrals from across London. "There is so little support from the state, local government and voluntary organisations that everyone is vulnerable now," he said. "Men end up here for reasons that simply didn't exist a few years ago. People struggle to survive on subsistence-level benefits, that are cut ever further, and yet have to pay more and more for life's essentials. Or they lose their job and there aren't any others to be had. Or their relationship breaks down and they can't afford to run two homes and pay for their children's food. "We even have people here who have siblings living locally. But because those siblings are close to the tipping point too, they can't care for their own kin without pushing themselves over the edge. "If the government want the so-called 'big society' to step up and really fill the gap that has been created by the withdrawal of statutory provision, then we need some help – our coffers are emptying. "We do the best that we can, but very soon, we won't have the resources to cope. There are more cuts on their way – and winter is coming."

• This article was amended on 23 November 2012 because the original said Haringey can no longer offer specialist welfare benefit advice, and that from next April there would not be a single CAB welfare benefit specialist working in Haringey. To clarify: this was a reference to legal-aid-funded welfare benefit specialists, funding for which is being withdrawn; the CAB has asked us to point out that its advisers will continue to give quality-assured welfare rights advice. A reference to funding for mental health work was also clarified. Further, the quote beginning "We're like the canary down the mine…" was originally misattributed to Markos Chrysostomou.