Monday, 7 December 2015

Un-bricking the windows

Detail of book from The Homeless Library

Jonathan Billings is the manager of The Wellspring homeless drop-in, Stockport. We were lucky enough to dodge in amongst his busy schedule and get an interview with Jonathan for our project The Homeless Library. If you're interested in finding out more about his work, we'd suggest a visit to his excellent blogsite.

Our HLF-funded Homeless Library is an account of contemporary homelessness in the UK, told from many perspectives and inscribed into secondhand books.


I see every client who comes in here as having a window of opportunity. All of us staff here at The Wellspring wait for the window, we wait for the bricks to be smashed out. People who are entrenched, who are stuck in their behaviours, are bricked up. When they do have a breakthrough they need the best chance as that window opens. That's what I watch out for. It's almost like seeing a new person being born. Once they've left behind chaos - drugs crime alcohol - and get through recovery they become different people. People with potential and with understanding of others. They have a lot of life experience, they know a lot and might not even realise it because of the drink or drugs or whatever. It's a real perk of this job, seeing people change into what they can be. 

I have a lot of conversations in this job hoping it's the right moment. One thing about this client group is I don't know when the last conversation might be. These people are very vulnerable, many die young. Those photographs on the tree of life out in the hallway opposite this office are faces of people who are now dead. Every single one of them are people I've known, people I used to talk to. 

Those conversations have changed me. I try to help people in the most positive way that I can. Each conversation is important. I can come across as grumpy but I'm not I'm perfectly happy inside I just have a grumpy face. I have a reputation because I've barred people from coming in here, or laid down rules, or pushed people into hearing stuff they don't want to hear. It's  important to say those things, it's important to have those rules. 

We see homelessness as a symptom of other things. I have never met a homeless person who did not have a reason for becoming homeless, it doesn't happen by accident. There is always something else that's not been addressed. 

The first day I started working at The Wellspring I was sitting on the wall outside looking at two dead rats next to me. I had left a good job in social services and I sat there and thought "What have I done?" I got shown inside and I asked "Is there a phone?" The reply was, "No." I asked "Is there an office?" "No." "Is there a computer?" "No." I said, "So it's going to be paper and pen, then."

It was a dangerous place to be. That first year I phoned the police up to 10 times a day. There were knives, two shotgun incidents, constant fighting. The client group was difficult to work with. I brought in membership. I barred lots and lots and lots of people. Basically we had two client groups. One of them was people in need who had nowhere to go. The other was people who were intent on trouble. Those were the ones we barred. We started helping people properly, supporting people as they faced things, even rehousing people. News began to spread that we could help people off the streets.

We made it safe for people to be able to change. You've asked me what the community of homeless people are like out on the streets I would say The Wellspring in those early days was a good sample. It was people bullying other people really. People intimidating the vulnerable. We had to stand up to the bullies. Some of them didn't even realise they were bullying, it was so habitual. I've explained to people that they were doing it and they've broken down in tears, sorrowful. Having difficult conversations with those people allowed some changes in them to be made too. 

There's a guy out in the foyer right now - three months ago he wouldn't have talked to me, he would've thrown something at me. That was because I barred him from coming in. He couldn't understand it at first. Now he has been talked to many times, I've explained his impact on others and he gets it. We had a difficult conversation. Sometimes people will just spit in your face when you do that and you have to be ready for it. He was ready to hear it and he will talk to me now.

When I started here I drew up a plan. Most of the things on it have been ticked off now. My biggest goal left is to provide our own accommodation. We are currently working on that we will have our own sheltered accommodation in the next two years. Then we can offer people a safe place to sleep.

Interview with Philip Davenport at The Wellspring, Dec 2015

Volume from The Homeless Library

The Homeless Library project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund

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