Support for people with complex lives - 911 Project

Support for people with complex lives - 911 Project - 10/09/2018

As I was buzzed into the 911 Project, the member of staff who let me in apologised – she was mid way through dealing with a client who’s smoke alarm was going off in his flat, and he was refusing entrance to staff who were concerned for his welfare. “We don’t often have fire situations”, she explained, “plenty of other stuff going on, but not that many fires!”

The 911 Project based in Broomhall provides 24-hour supported housing for clients with mental health problems, offending behaviour and substance misuse problems (drugs and alcohol). Clients have the independence, security and privacy of their own home, with support available around the clock, and for many vulnerable people in the city, it can be the stepping stone they need to move from scraping by just about existing on the streets, into securing their own independent tenancy and a life away from the streets.

I met with the Service Managers, Lisa and Diane who talked me through the work that they do, from helping clients sort their benefits out, getting them to register with a GP, supporting them to attend appointments with drug and alcohol workers and referring to mental health services where necessary. I got the distinct impression that this nuts and bolts stuff makes up such a small part of their work however, and that their real focus and passion is around supporting people to reduce their negative behaviours and move forwards with their lives.

I had a really interesting conversation with Lisa and Diane, which I’ve summarised below:

“There’s a whole lot of crazy going on here, but we do love them really. We’ve got to, because in a lot of cases nobody else really does. People can initially be really resistant to coming here and accessing our service.  They can be confrontational, aggressive and rude to staff, but we have to understand that they lead hugely chaotic lives, may be under the influence of various substances and are living really tough lives. We can’t judge them based on societal norms, they just don’t apply here. Instead we work with what we’ve got and celebrate successes measured differently.

We have to look at life through their eyes – they’ve been let down in the past by people, so trust is a major issue. What we see as success probably looks very different to what everyday people see as success. For us it may be that a client actually sleeps in their bed, rather than sleeping in their sleeping bag on the floor of their flat. It may be that one of our female clients gains an appreciation of the fact that she has the ability to lock the door to her flat and that she doesn’t have to open it when somebody knocks. Something that we all take completely for granted, but for some of our most vulnerable female clients, that’s massive.”

We chatted at length about the aims of Help us Help, and how best to educate and inform the general public that giving money to people who beg isn’t the best approach, as it doesn’t allow people to move away from the streets. Instead, supporting agencies, projects and services with donations or by volunteering is a much more effective way to help the most vulnerable people in society.

“The general public have to understand that when people are begging on the streets, they can be making £100 to £150 a day, easily. But all that people who beg are doing is using that money to buy drugs, which keeps them on the streets in a negative and never-ending cycle, and it will kill them if they stay there for long enough. And we aren’t naïve enough to think that by coming here and staying in one of our properties that they will stop using drugs – we know that doesn’t happen. But what it does is provide them with a safe place to stay, a bed to sleep in, a shower, and access to food.

I think the main message that we need to get out there is that you can’t simply solve the problems of begging, rough sleeping and homelessness by providing houses for people to stay in. It’s much more complex than that. The people who are referred to our Project are incredibly damaged individuals. Many have been abused as children, many have been in care, then in prison as adults. They all have substance misuse problems, often multiple substance misuse problems, and many have mental health issues alongside that. For some people, having their own tenancy is simply too much for them to deal with – the responsibilities of sorting benefits, rent, gas and electricity and food is overwhelming, and often doomed to failure. Plus, getting their own tenancy often takes people away from their community and friends, and they need to want that to happen for it to work out, otherwise they abandon their properties and start to rack up rent arrears.

Our approach of supporting clients in their time with us, teaching life skills that may be missing and working alongside other agencies in the city, ensuring that people aren’t slipping through the cracks, means that we often see people moving on from here to gain and maintain their own tenancies, and for us that’s just brilliant to see. Don’t get me wrong, we do see people who continue to go around the system who just aren’t ready at that time for the next step, and us and other providers in the city will continue to work with those people too”.

Everyone I spoke to at the project had great things to say about the staff – grudgingly admitting that the staff were tough on them when they needed to be, but that this had generated mutual respect between them all. The Project has two recovery ambassadors, people who have had drug or alcohol dependencies in the past, so share a lot of common history with some of the clients. I spoke to one of the ambassadors about their role, and they saw themselves as a halfway house between clients and staff – they’ve experienced the lows that some of the clients are currently at and can demonstrate how its possible to move past that stage in their lives with hard work and by accessing support.

Bookshelf and sharps

I spoke to a few 911 clients about their life stories. One client told me how he’d had a bad start to life, had been abused by his parents, and ended up in care, where he was abused for years. “My life has been an absolute nightmare. From day one”. What followed was the all too the familiar story of relationship breakdown, mental health difficulties and drug abuse to block out the pain. “I’m not a drugs guy, but I ended up addicted to heroin for 20 years. I have terrible flashbacks even now and have been diagnosed with PTSD from my childhood”. He told me how he had attempted suicide multiple times, desperate to end the pain of his life. This was his second stint with the 911 project, and he was starting to work out how to pay off his rent arrears, with the aim of moving into his own tenancy at some point in the future.

Another client had been a prolific beggar in the city centre for years, with the sole purpose of funding his heroin and crack habit. He had been in and out of prison for various offences, all linked to his destructive lifestyle, interspersed with periods of homelessness, but he had finally accepted that he needed support from 911, and was doing much better at reducing his drug use, and had almost cleared his rent arrears. He was about ready to start bidding on his own tenancy and wanted to get away from his old haunts in the city, as he sees triggers everywhere that he goes. He was determined to continue his recovery journey, move away from the streets, and get his life back.

And around these parts, that’s a huge success story, and is testament to what can be done when people accept help from services and accommodation providers in the city to leave their destructive lifestyles behind them and take the next steps towards a better life.


Alison Riggott, SheffGives


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