It’s raw and it’s real. At 5am on Tuesday I walked York’s streets with the Salvation Army’s Early Intervention and Prevention team and met York’s rough sleepers – 22 of them, and there would be others.
In the chilly night air, men and women found their quiet corners to get their heads down for a bit of rest, before the new day repeated the last. As the bins were emptied, streets were swept and last night’s beer bottles crashed into the back of trucks, York’s homeless were clocking surviving another night out.
Everyone has a backstory. We all do. It is just that the twists and turns in theirs landed in a different place to ours. Some were seasoned and knew where help could be found, others were new.
Each was greeted by a bright ‘good morning’ from the Salvation Army’s Charlie and Sarah. They knew most well, having slowly built up a relationship with each. They understand the intersection of poverty, mental health, challenging lives and all that goes with street homelessness. Their job is to put the jigsaw together and find a route off the streets. This takes time – trust needs to form as Charlie and Sarah engage with the most vulnerable of people.
Every inch of York is known to the Salvation Army, from corners of car parks to sheltered nooks. They find them all. What is evident is the scale of the dedication this team has. They don’t have to go out every morning when the rest of us turn over in bed, but they do. They don’t have to invest in building a relationship with everyone, but they know that without it, people will never engage. They don’t have to do the washing for people, buy them a morning butty or spend time just chatting, but they do. To the Salvation Army, every life really matters.
They know all their names, their backstories and how best to ensure they can find a way into secure living. This is no mere job, but an extraordinary demonstration of care for those most would walk by on the other side.
After two hours, we popped down to the boxing gym where homeless people can come and work out. We all know the benefit of keeping fit for our physical and mental health – if you’re homeless, you are no different. This unique facility is where they can gain self-confidence and self-respect.
Then on to York’s NAPpad. This is unique: four single rooms, soundproofed and safe. A bed, sink, toilet and somewhere to recharge your phone and yourself. The first of its kind. As we chatted to those who had spent the night there, they talked about how they ended up homeless and how the NAPpad had saved them from the streets: a first step of engagement and a first step to resettlement. The Salvation Army funds it, the council provides the land.
Here comes the shock. City of York Council is slashing these services, defunding two of the five staff at the Salvation Army and getting rid of the NAPpad. Let me say that again – no morning engagement, no boxing gym and no NAPpad. Of the 22 people I met on Tuesday morning, each could sleep in the NAPpad. We need more, not less. How anyone would take that first step into resettlement if the Salvation Army wasn’t there is beyond me.
The Green councillor Denise Craghill, responsible for housing in York, was all over the Salvation Army when the NAPpad arrived. She is now allowing these cuts to the most vulnerable of people in York to go ahead on her watch.
I won’t stand by and let this happen. The homeless have always really mattered to me. I am imploring the council to change its mind. I will raise the issue with the Minister for the Homeless on my return to Parliament and I am pleading with York businesses to put up some sponsorship so that we can provide more of these services, not less. If you can fund the staff, sponsor the boxing gym, or have land which could support the NAPpad, I want to talk to you.
Enough is enough. This is beyond politics, it is about humanity. The Salvation Army need the funds and our city need the NAPpads, gym and Charlie, Sarah and the team. Let’s keep these precious homeless people safe; let’s fight for their futures.