How exactly does local charity Catching Lives “catch lives”? It was a pleasure to hear from Graeme Solly about their work with the homeless and vulnerably housed when he came to speak to us recently.
Catching Lives is a small, independent, local charity supporting homeless and vulnerably housed individuals in the Canterbury area (although in recent years they find people coming to them from all over East Kent). The charity has been established now for around 10 years, and has a day centre in Station Road East which is open from 9am-2pm every day of the week except for occasional training days.
Graeme is a project leader at the charity, where he has volunteered for around 6 years. He told us how the charity started with around 5 members but has now grown to a small team of 14 staff who work with a large number of volunteers. The latter carry out a range of roles – such as donating meals or cooking meals in the kitchen, fundraising, carrying out client activities, mentoring clients who have just moved into accommodation, and much more. Interestingly, some of these volunteers are local students – including occupational therapy, gardening, art and needlework students.
Talking about the people that turn to Catching Lives, Graeme says they often see rough sleepers – but also sofa surfers or people in work who are struggling to make ends meet. They often see those affected by mental health issues and are increasingly working with those discharged from hospital or recently released from prison.
Graeme touched on the many reasons that people become homeless. These include the breakdown of relationships with partners or with family (Catching Lives tends to see more males following a relationship breakdown as females, especially those with children, may be re-housed by the council as they are seen to be more vulnerable); loss of work; mental health issues; and rent arrears caused by changes to the benefits system or other factors. Although there was an increase in migrant workers three years ago, the number of non-UK people that they work with has massively declined. Nowadays, the ending of assured short-term tenancies is the main reason for homelessness – landlords can currently evict people from private rented accommodation at relatively short notice without needing to give a reason.
“It [homelessness] could happen to anyone”, declared Graeme. As an example, he outlined how the breakdown of a relationship could mean no access to the family car – and subsequent loss of a job that depended on having a car.
Graeme told us that Catching Lives helps people look for accommodation. This may involve completing homelessness applications to councils when a duty of care is likely to be owed, completing referrals to supported accommodation projects, or looking for private rented accommodation. Graeme highlighted the sad fact that many individuals have lacked positive role models in their lives while growing up, meaning that they haven’t all developed the skills for independent living – e.g. how to set up a bank account, how to pay bills.
Catching Lives works closely with other local organisations – for example, many of their clients are on waiting lists for interviews for Porchlight’s support accommodation (Porchlight is another local charity helping the homeless). If accepted, they must then wait for a room to become available. Catching Lives ensures clients’ day-to-day needs are met whilst they wait for this, and helps them prepare for the move from rough sleeping to accommodation.
Catching Lives also works with other local charities such as the Forward Trust (that helps those with alcohol and substance abuse issues), and Rising Sun (that helps those affected by domestic abuse and violence). They also work closely with Canterbury BIDS (Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District) in relation to job opportunities.
There are lots of services that are offered at the centre. These include two meals a day (breakfast and lunch), showers, access to donated clothes, laundry facilities, phone use, internet use, a “Care of” address (for use, for example, in job applications) and storage of belongings. They also have volunteer nurses (who help clients register with a GP and carry out health checks which may lead to a referral to a doctor or the hospital if any issues are identified) and podiatrists (for foot health). They also have two part-time mental health workers who offer clients the chance to talk about any worries they have. As they are aware that the words ‘mental health assessment’ are scary to some clients, they make this as informal and relaxed as they can.
Catching Lives also help clients find work or support them to continue to work whilst rough sleeping (by providing access to storage, showers, etc. as outlined above). Graeme told us how their ethos is to be flexible and to support people when and where needed, helping individuals to help themselves and “move on”. The fact that the bulk of Catching Lives' funding does not come directly from the council helps them with that flexibility, though it makes their funding more precarious.
Locals may have heard about Catching Lives’ Winter Shelters (Canterbury Community Shelters) which provide bed spaces in church halls to rough sleepers during the coldest time of the year. This year this will run from 1st December 2019-29th February 2020. Individuals self-refer for this; during the time in the shelter they are often able to focus on more pressing things, such as seeking long-term accommodation.
In recent years funding cuts to social services etc. have meant that Catching Lives sees more people who have “fallen through the net” or are in danger of doing so. Catching Lives staff often contact others or write to local MPs and CCGs (Clinical Commissioning Groups) on behalf of clients, anonymised as needed. Graeme gave a recent example of a 76-year-old man with dementia who was dropped off at the winter shelter by hospital transport; although the shelter provides a safe and secure environment, it was deemed inappropriate for the elderly man to sleep on a church floor. They were able to contact a local hospital and get him admitted.
Graeme also spoke about the housing difficulties that some of their clients face – often they are “so grateful for anything” that they are vulnerable to rogue landlords offering unsafe or unsuitable accommodation. An important part of their work is to collect evidence when clients have had a problematic experience, whether an illegal action was taken or simply an immoral one. They try to increase awareness of issues and encourage changes to prevent similar issues happening to others in the future.
Graeme told us that Catching Lives aims to be proactive – and “not just do firefighting”. To this end, Catching Lives has been carrying out outreach work for a number of years. Their outreach worker, Emma, goes out onto the streets (flexible to where needed) and tries to build a rapport so that individuals know that an offer of support is always there if they choose to accept it.
When queried about their relationship with Porchlight, Graeme clarified how Catching Lives provides individuals with the day-to-day skills that they need to acquire accommodation through Porchlight. They also provide more mental health support and offer mentoring. (In the latter, Catching Lives train volunteers who work in pairs to support people when in accommodation; they may, for example, show them how to use the computer to pay bills). On occasion, staff from Catching Lives and Porchlight may work together – e.g. a recent programme for rough sleepers, overseen by the Council, involves both so that there is a coordinated response without duplication.
Catching Lives has won the Kent Community Charity of the Year Award for 3 of the last 5 years for their work. Last year alone Catching Lives helped 443 individuals (worryingly, 210 new to them that year), of whom 80% were male. They had a total footfall of approx. 11,006 visits; registered 18 new people per month; and served nearly 17,000 meals (the vast majority of which are from donations from supermarkets, other organisations and individuals). It may come as a surprise to those that think homelessness predominantly affects the young to learn that the average age of clients in 2018 was 48.
This year, Graeme estimates, they are seeing around 40 clients per day. In November 2018 the estimated number of rough sleepers was 45; it is now thought that around 50-60 people sleep rough in Canterbury on a typical night.
To learn more about Catching Lives, visit their webpage.
World Homeless Day is on October 10th.
Picture: Graeme Solly talks to our members about Catching Lives. Picture credit: Rotary Club of Canterbury