Love the Street evangelism training in Norwich
"It is more than just providing a room. It is about providing community. It is about valuing every person whatever they have done and even if they mess up..."
Biddy Collyer writes:
The door-bell rang. On the step was a tall, blond young man carrying a heavy bag. He thrust an identity card towards me, and in a thick northern accent asked me if I would buy something from him. He had only been out of prison for four weeks, had found a hostel to live in and was hawking household products. Michael, I now know from my research, is one of the lucky ones. He is being housed, he has a job and is keen to get on. He also has a “red dot”.
Red dots are what Ed Walker, who set up Hope into Action, calls our connections. Those people who we could call on if we got into trouble; family, spouse, friends. Michael has a girlfriend and a son aged six back in the north. He has hope for the future.
Most of those who come out of prison have no red dots. On release they are given £46 and a bin bag of their clothes. With nowhere to go, over 50 per cent of adults and 80 per cent of young men are back in prison within a year.
Two charities in Norwich are addressing the very real problem of homelessness among ex-offenders. They both recognise that what makes the difference is a home and strong, healthy relationships.
House of Genesis was set up in 2000 by Val Dodsworth who had spent 20 years as a Probation Officer and five as a prison chaplain. The home in Norwich is just that. Everybody has their own room, the doors are not locked and it operates as a family with everyone chipping in with cooking. Some of the men work, and for those without work, there is a furniture project.
Shaun said, “It is more of a home than a hostel. The staff are very approachable and it is relaxed.” Homeless and wandering the streets in Dereham, he was befriended by a Christian couple with four children. They took him in to live with them until there was a space at the House of Genesis. “Somebody actually cared. There was someone out there who gave a damn what I was going through.”
The referrals come from prison chaplains and if possible Val will visit before discharge. It is important to work out if they will fit in with the current occupants. Oren came through a referral from the Roman Catholic chaplain. He had become a Christian in prison and being at House of Genesis has helped his faith grow to such an extent that he was baptised at Witard Road Baptist Church in May. He likes the set-up even though he was shocked at first by the homely atmosphere and the fact that staff are always on hand if an issue comes up that he needs to talk through. “When one person has an issue it can rock the house. The staff handle it professionally. This is important.”
How does a man stay out of prison? Key factors include a real desire to change, to work towards goals and to address any problems through outside agencies who help with mental health problems and drug addiction. Being part of a community makes a big difference. Once the men have been there two years, they can move on into the second house where they live more independently but with the ongoing support of the project.
A new development is the employment of a Community Chaplain. She is currently recruiting and training a team of mentors who will meet the men in prison a couple of times then be there at the gate when they come out, help them find accommodation, encourage them to achieve their goals and be a friend as they find their way back into society. The aim, again, is to put an end to the revolving door back into prison.
Hope into Action, another Christian response to the problem of housing ex-offenders, women as well as men, works somewhat differently. Set up in Peterborough by Ed Walker in 2010, Hope into Action uses a three-way approach between the charity, local churches and investors. The investors buy a property within a mile of the sponsoring church, which provides the support through a team of parishioners.
Kate Doran-Smith, who runs the charity in Norwich, said, “The rallying call to all the churches is the same. It is all the way through the Bible: looking after the wandering stranger and breaking the chains of the captives.”
Of those they home, 50 per cent have been in the criminal justice system even if they have not been to prison. Again, it is the same story of people having nowhere to go. Even if the sentence is just four weeks, it still means they have lost their tenancy and will be seen as intentionally homeless.
Kate warns her volunteers that they will have to manage their expectations. “If you think these guys are going to get clean, and get converted, you might be disillusioned.” On the plus side, they gain a deeper understanding of how the Bible views poverty and justice. “When we meet the poor,” says Kate “We meet the heart of Jesus in a very real and tangible way.”
Notwithstanding the difficulties, there are many successes. One ex-tenant recently said, “I am 60 days clean today. It is the longest I have been clean for the past ten years.” Currently there are five houses operating in the city, a sixth is being refurbished and a bid has been accepted on a seventh.
The problem is huge. The prison population has exploded from 49,000 in 1994 to 85,000 in 2014. Prison costs £3 billion a year. These two Christian initiatives have much better outcomes than normal recidivist statistics. It is more than just providing a room. It is about providing community. It is about valuing every person whatever they have done and even if they mess up, it is about still being there to help them get back on their feet.
Some names have been changed to protect identity.