Article, The Guardian Newspaper
by Amelia Hill
4th July, 2016
View original Article on The Guardian Newspaper website.
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, 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.
“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.”