ACCORDING to a report from Cheshire West and Chester Council in 2009, Chester had the second highest number of rough sleepers outside of London. In 2008 and 2009, 51 per cent of accepted homeless cases were from Chester. Alexandra Murdey investigates what is being done to tackle the problem.
In recent months the prospect of Richmond Court in Boughton being turned into a residency for the homeless has caused a great deal of controversy. The revelation that the opening will be postponed until January 2014 due to the demand for CCTV raises questions about what will be done in the meantime to help the homeless.
Chester Aid to the Homeless (CATH) aims to provide support and services for the homeless community through the Harold Tomlins Centre, by offering advice, food and drink, showers, education and many others. Robert Bisset, Chief Executive said: ‘‘It is the only centre of its type in Cheshire.’’
They rely heavily on support and donations from the local community and they cannot offer all the desired services due to financial restrictions. He said: ‘‘We haven’t got the necessary financial resources, so the more people get behind us the greater the services we can offer…we have to prioritise and use and maximise our limited resources to the best effect.’’
CATH is hosting its 22nd Big Sleep Out this December, which is more needed than ever before as a result of lack of funding. People bring their own sleeping provisions and sleep through the night until 6am. Robert said: ‘‘It does have an effect on the support we get for the charity…we have been so well looked after by the people of Chester.’’
On the subject of Richmond Court, Robert said: ‘‘It is the local authority’s new project, I think that they felt if they moved people away from the city centre it would be more beneficial for the city. Unfortunately they chose a place that was highly residential and as such has become highly controversial…I’m sure it will be an excellent facility…and an excellent resource.
The reality of that hostel is that it may be a newer facility but it’s actually being put in place at the cost of cutting beds…when that hostel is open two will be shut with a total of 66 beds, whereas that hostel will have 36 beds.’’
A homeless man who did not wished to be named, 38, uses the Harold Tomlins Centre for support. He has been on and off the streets for 15 years as a result of struggling with budgeting, but is now in a shared house run by CATH. He said: ‘‘I spent eight or nine months on the street this time.’’
He commented on Richmond Court in which FENW (Foundation Enterprises North West) won the bid: ‘‘When this place was opening up there was opposition against it…so FENW knew…they were going to have all these consultations…they knew it was going to take maybe 12 or 18 months over the deadline that people were meant to be in this building but they put no plan B in operation for the people that are on the streets.’’
He added: ‘‘My opinion on Richmond Court is you are going to be a selected clientele. I was a drug user at one time, I’ve been clean for 12 months now…they have turned around and said you have to work with us…whatever they ask you to do you have to take part in that if you don’t take part then you can’t be part of the residency at Richmond Court.
They are dangling a carrot in front of you, saying you can come and live here but you have got to take part in this before we agree to let you live here.
The likes of people who have got drink problems, class A problems, I don’t think they are going to be taking them up there…FENW don’t want to bring in our type up there because they think we are trouble.’’
He also commented on the postponed opening: ‘‘They keep putting it back but they haven’t got anything in place for the lads that are suffering now.’’
An attempt was made to contact FENW but they did not respond in time.
When asked about whether enough was being done to tackle homelessness in Chester he said: ‘‘No not at all, a lot more could be done. For instance finding something for the homeless to do in the day.’’
Looking to the future, he hopes to keep a roof over his head permanently.
Cllr David Robinson said that 99 per cent of residents surrounding Richmond Court wanted CCTV put into place in time for the homeless moving in.
His group felt the provision should be kept in the city centre due to better access to services. He said: ‘‘My job as the ward councillor is to ensure that the character of the area stays as similar as possible to what it was before…and to ensure that the homeless hub is managed and operated in the safest and the most efficient way possible, both for the homeless residents and the local people who live around the provision.’’
The Big Sleep Out will provide people with an insight into the harsh winter the homeless will be facing, and the reality of spending Christmas in a doorway. With the postponed opening of Richmond House and the closure of two other residencies, the homeless have a long winter ahead.
If you would like more information about CATH you can go to http://www.cath.org.uk
Chester Intelligencer reporter, Alexandra Murdey