The daytime can be a period of risk for homeless people, particularly if they are trying to kick a drug or alcohol habit, as boredom can draw them towards other misusers.
But the wood and furniture recycling project run by Watford New Hope Trust is giving homeless and disadvantaged people something to do.
“It keeps me occupied and I learn something useful,” says Darren Lawrence, who is benefiting from the charity’s work.
The trust works to an environmental policy: it also has an organic market garden a day centre with a soil roof to retain heat and recycles waste materials. When its charity shop receives donations that are not in a condition to be sold the trust pays for their recycling and British Gas provides low-energy light bulbs that the tenancy sustainment team distributes to former clients.
Its wood and furniture recycling project, set up in 2000, repairs donated furniture and makes small items such as bird boxes, tables and cupboards. Clients are referred from the charity itself, Stonham Housing Association, probation and other agencies. They are risk assessed and interviewed.
About 50 clients use the project each year, including some who have been coming for longer. There are morning and afternoon sessions of two-and-a-half hours, five days a week, and clients are booked in for at least one a week. Space at the workshop limits each session to six clients and two staff. Flexibility is key to keeping them interested, says project supervisor John Swallow.
On Tuesdays two clients go out in a van with Swallow’s assistant, Peter Belfield, to collect and deliver furniture. It allows Belfield to spend time with the clients and “get to know their hates, fears and good times. Also the guys get to know each other in depth”. The van brings back furniture to be recycled. Other pieces are delivered at the shop door. There it is recycled and sold on – a recent piece went for £700 on ebay after sitting in the shop for months at £150.
Swallow says this support from the community is essential to the success of the project. “We get total backing from New Hope. The Christian environment is important to the support we have: the church, harvest donations, schools.”
Schoolchildren recently carried out a sponsored sleep-out to raise money for the trust. Swallow says the recycling shop’s landlord was initially reluctant to rent out his premises. But when he saw the work of New Hope’s other projects he changed his mind. “He now fully supports us and we get the shop at a very affordable rent.”
The recycling is important but Swallow says the primary reason is “to give the guys the stability and encouragement to go on to find work or other useful activities”.
He cites Mark Campbell, who has “changed his life around from being a habitual drinker to, for want of a better phrase, being a respectable member of society”.
Mark agrees. He was drinking, estranged from his family and had been homeless for six months when he arrived in Watford to live in a night shelter. “There was nothing to do in the hostels. So about 12 months ago I started coming here.” Since then he has stopped drinking and attends the project four days a week. He is also moving into cluster flats run by New Hope. He says: “I want to give something back to the community. Coming here helps me do this.”
Keith Glenister has been attending the project for six years after being homeless for nearly 10 years. He has gained a City & Guilds qualification in woodcarving and French polishing. The project has allowed him to achieve things he thought he could never do at school. He now has his own flat. “I wake up in the morning looking forward to coming here.”
Whatever plans the project has for the future, such as becoming a social enterprise, moving to bigger premises or developing the furniture recycling, one thing is sure, Swallow says: “None of it should get in the way of the work with the guys, giving them something to do and a feeling of self-worth.”
● Be flexible. Do not impose a rigid week or structure on clients who have chaotic lives. Let them do what they can manage at their pace.
● Don’t let them get bored. For a homeless person, boredom is one of the biggest enemies to progress. Keep them interested in varied and short tasks that can produce quick results in which they can take pride.
● The community can play a crucial role in supporting a project financially, with gifts such as furniture or backing from individuals, schools, churches and other civic organisations.
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This article appeared in the 10 January issue under the headline “Seats of learning”