‘You just have to keep trying’: the people helping Birmingham’s rough sleepers

Outreach and charity workers talk about the day-to-day issues they face when dealing with the city’s homelessness problem

Just outside a busy McDonald’s in Birmingham city centre a homeless woman sat with her belongings stacked in a trolley beside her, including a black cat in a carry case.

Mursel Demir, an outreach worker, sat down beside her and listened as she tearfully explained how she lost the room she was sharing in a hostel with her partner when their relationship broke down last week. She had not seen him for three days.

Demir picked up the phone and within minutes the woman ran down the street, trolley in tow, to claim the bed for the night that he had just arranged for her elsewhere.

“The job can be tough,” Demir said. “Some people you can help first time. Others, you can speak to them a hundred times and they don’t want to know, they shout abuse at you. But then, on the 101st time, they might be ready for help. You just have to keep trying.”

With a population of 1.14 million people and some of the highest deprivation rates in the country, Birmingham has managed to get its rough sleeping population down to 30-40 people a night.

It attributes its progress to more joined-up thinking between homelessness, mental health, and drug and alcohol addiction services, which stop people falling through the cracks, as well more flexible accommodation that allows people to bring dogs or other pets, or share as a couple.

The city also now has people patrolling the streets 24 hours a day, all through the night, looking for rough sleepers. But despite the improvements, there is a continuous stream of new faces on the streets.

David Watson, the head of support at Trident
David Watson, the head of support at Trident: ‘There is a continuous stream of new names, new faces. ’ Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

“When I went on annual leave over Christmas, I came back and there were 20 new names on the list,” said David Watson, the head of support at Trident, a group that delivers homelessness services in the city. “There is a continuous stream of new names, new faces, new presentations of homelessness, and with that, new complex needs.”

The city’s homelessness problem is exacerbated by its central location, and a huge unregulated supported accommodation sector that has been shown to often exploit vulnerable people.

At Washington Court, a homeless hostel in the city just a stone’s throw away from the luxury shopping centre the Mailbox, residents milled in the courtyard, while others worked in the computer room.

The hostel’s head chef, Tony Nickerson, said the 101-room property was as busy as it had ever been, with few spare rooms most nights.

Tony Nickerson (left) with the kitchen assistant Ian Kirkpatrick and chef Elizabeth Beckford at Washington Court in Birmingham.
Tony Nickerson (left) with the kitchen assistant Ian Kirkpatrick and chef Elizabeth Beckford at Washington Court in Birmingham. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

“We’re pretty full all the time, it never stops,” said Nickerson, who previously spent time rough sleeping before coming to the hostel decades ago. “But people can turn their lives around in here. I always say to them if I can do it, anyone can.”

Around the corner is Change Grow Live, a substance misuse and criminal justice intervention charity, where up to 40 people come through its main hub every day.

Carl Price, a team leader at Change Grow Live
Carl Price, a team leader at Change Grow Live: ‘I came through this service as a service user and now I’m eight years clean.’ Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

“We’re presented with this person, they can be in crisis, and it’s literally a case of trying to keep that person alive,” said Carl Price, a team leader at the charity. “I think with things like the cost of living crisis and the climate at the moment, that will add to those difficulties for people.”

“But for all the stuff we like to focus on that isn’t going too well, there are also lots of people who really do flourish through this process,” he said. “I came through this service as a service user and now I’m eight years clean. I spent four years rough sleeping, probably 20 years in and out of hospitals, but with the right support I came through it.”


Jessica Murray Midlands correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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