Jackie Bliss, Chief Executive at HARP, Southend’s Homelessness Charity, reflects on the opening of their Women’s Only Hostel.
It is no secret that homelessness is on the rise. Although HARP – the leading homelessness charity in Southend-on-Sea, Essex – has seen a reduction in long-term rough sleepers on our streets in recent years, the demand for our services continues to rise as more and more people find themselves facing homelessness.
Until the introduction of our women’s hostel just last year, HARP was providing accommodation for over 150 people every night – people that might otherwise be on the streets . Now, we are able to accommodate up to 174 people thanks to our newest hostel: White Heather House. But unlike any of our other services, or indeed anything else provided locally, White Heather House is a unique and innovative project that serves to do so much more than simply to provide a safe place to sleep for local women that have found themselves in crisis.
Around 25% of the people that we support are women, and they can often have a very different journey to their male counterparts. Within the female homeless population, there are high levels of vulnerability, and the circumstances that lead up to women’s homelessness are often complex. Many of the women who have experienced sleeping rough report having experienced abuse of some kind, and this will often lead them to look for ways to avoid sleeping on the streets. It is this avoidance which further impacts their wellbeing, as they spend time “sofa surfing” or choose to remain in abusive relationships in order to retain a roof over their heads.
The introduction of our single-gender environment allows HARP to provide a less intimidating entry point to homeless services to these women, in a supportive and understanding environment. Already, this is improving and broadening the support available, empowering women to make positive changes in their lives as well as providing peer support for them from other women who are equally experiencing the loneliness and isolation which so often results from homelessness. Over the first six months following its opening, HARP’s White Heather House achieved a 73% improvement in outcomes for its residents compared with women in our mixed-gender accommodation.
For many, a disadvantaged upbringing and a dysfunctional family life can make working through the resultant turmoil extremely challenging. By the time people arrive at HARP, crisis point has been reached and the journey back to a happy and healthy life can be daunting. But with the support of our specialist team at White Heather House, working closely with other specialist local agencies, the road to recovery for women overcoming homelessness is being embraced in an environment which nurtures personal growth and development, and improves their life chances too.
Homelessness is a complex issue and whilst it has been well documented that there is a shortage of affordable housing and a rise in the cost of living – particularly in Southend-on-Sea where high costs of housing collide with relatively low average rates of take-home pay – these are often just the catalysts for becoming homeless. There is generally a multitude of underlying issues that build up over time and, without confronting these, finding and being able to sustain accommodation is unlikely to happen for many. This is why, at HARP, we take a proactive approach to making positive change for all our clients, encouraging all who use our service to access a variety of support networks that collectively will help them to regain their independence.
These pathways include:
- liaison with private sector landlords
- the provision of a varied programme of meaningful activities for service users, designed to improve their self-esteem, confidence and self-awareness
- training opportunities to boost employability
- addiction therapy to tackle any alcohol or substance misuse
- access to medical services
- provision of hot, nutritious meals
- shower, washing and laundry facilities
- and, of course, a friendly ear for when the journey feels too tough.
It is this holistic approach to tackling homelessness that empowers the people we work with to overcome their personal issues and to move on successfully.
In April this year we were joined by media personality, businesswoman and activist Heather Mills, who officially opened White Heather House and spent time talking to our residents there about her own recovery, following a period of homelessness in her youth. These women were thrilled that someone so successful would take the time to visit and talk with them, and many reported afterwards how inspired they had felt by the passionate account Heather had given about her own journey.
It is our mission at HARP to support people facing homelessness to not just find a new home, but to work with them to break down the barriers which are preventing them from overcoming homelessness. Now, our new women’s hostel at White Heather House is empowering more local women to realise their potential and to follow a structured and supported pathway to a meaningful and successful future.