TWO years ago this week, a new type of homeless centre opened in Oxford. Now, the challenges it faces are as great as ever, especially at this time of year.
This week, Crisis Skylight at the Old Fire Station in George Street, has been promoting its Crisis Christmas Party campaign, asking people in Oxford and around the UK to host Christmas parties in aid of Crisis.
Oxford centre director Kate Cocker said: “It is that time of year, people ought to be thinking about it.
“It is a really tough time of year to be homeless.”
On Tuesday, Lord Mayor of Oxford Dee Sinclair helped the centre to promote its campaign by making some mince pies with centre users.
She said: “The Lord Mayor gets to choose their charities for the year, and I chose Crisis because housing in the city is still a challenge for most people because it is so expensive.
“What concerns me is that we have more young people unable to find affordable housing in the city so they are maybe sleeping on friends’ sofas or on the street, which is unacceptable.
“In the context of what is happening economically there are huge challenges out there.
“Crisis is a huge part of the provision for homeless people but I think from the council’s perspective we are finding it more of a challenge to house people – there are more families being housed in bed-and-breakfasts, which is unacceptable.”
Last year, 311 households in Oxfordshire were declared homeless, a 25 per cent increase over two years. Crisis prides itself on being different from other shelters.
Rather than offering food, accommodation and washing facilities, it offers only classes, courses and employment opportunities.
In its cafe, it employs 10 staff at any one time for up to four months.
Other courses include art and design, photography and woodwork.
Ms Cocker said the idea is not to give people free handouts, but help them to help themselves.
She said: “The idea began by looking at typical day centres for homeless people and trying to figure out how they can best get people back into employment.
“What you typically find is food and somewhere to stay but people tend not to take up the opportunities for education.
“So at Skylight we don’t offer people food or a place to come for the day. You can get those elsewhere.
“We offer a timetable of classes which people can take part in that begin to build up people’s confidence and self-esteem.”
There are also more practical classes like bike maintenance and carpentry and even basic education like numeracy and literacy.
The centre also offers health and safety classes. The Oxford centre also employs mental health workers to help people with drug and alcohol problems.
It employs 25 permanent staff, and an equal number of volunteers. In the past year, Crisis in Oxford said it had helped 638 people, with 49 supported into paid employment.
Ms Cocker said: “Oxford has always had a high number of homeless people. “I think we have got great facilities in the city in terms of accommodation but there is a gap in terms of moving people who are homeless back into employment. We believe if you want to end homelessness, putting a roof over peoples’ heads isn’t enough.”
- To find out more and download your own Crisis Christmas party pack, go to crisis.org.uk
- £83k homeless grant: Page 22
‘Being here has boosted my confidence’
TOM Simmons, 22, first went to Crisis when he got fed up with living in care.
He was in Oxfordshire County Council’s Shared Lives scheme, living with a family in Oxford.
He said: “I had to stick to stupid rules. At 18 years old I had to be in by 11.30 at night, so I deliberately broke the rules.”
His council support worker suggested he go to Crisis to see what the charity had to offer.
He signed up for a woodwork class about a year ago. Although he admits he just ended up sanding items in the woodwork class, he also ended up making new friends.
“It boosted my confidence,” said Mr Simmons.
Crisis also helped him find his own flat in Didcot, and now he still goes to Crisis where he is taking art and design and cookery classes.
He said: “I did get involved in a lot of dodgy stuff, but I am not as involved as I was.
“I made a lot of mates here, and it taught me not to judge people.
“We all make mistakes, but you’ve got to crack on.”
So many are at risk of losing homes
DEBBIE Smart, 49, pictured, became homeless after her marriage of 16 years collapsed.
She had a mental breakdown, she and her husband split up and she ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas for about a year.
She said: “There is no way you can prepare for it, it is the potential timebomb sitting there in so many people’s lives.
“Nowadays you’re only a couple of pay cheques away from losing everything, and when it happens to you you feel guilt and shame.”
She said she felt “invisible”.
Following her divorce she was in therapy, and her therapist recommended she go to Crisis.
She said: “I needed some help to come out of that and back into humanity, which is really difficult when you have been in long-term therapy.”
Someone suggested that Debbie try out a photography class so she went along and “absolutely loved it”.
All of a sudden, she said, she had a sense of fun again.
The class also gave her a chance to interact with people again.
With Crisis she took an advanced European Computer Driving Licence (EDCL) IT course, the equivalent of an A-Level, and recently had her first professional photography assignment, shooting the Oxfordshire Charity and Volunteer Awards ceremony at Oxford Town Hall.
She is also a volunteer teaching assistant at Crisis.
It isn’t everything she wants, but it is all adding to her CV.
She said: “It gives you the confidence to step in front of a potential employer.
“I’m feeling really positive and optimistic. I have had fantastic feedback at job interviews, and I am relishing the opportunity to give something back.
“I have got the energy and belief that I haven’t had for so many years.
“That is the magic of what happens here at Crisis.”
She now lives in Steventon.
HOW CRISIS SKYLIGHT CAME TO THE OLD FIRE STATION
- CRISIS Skylight opened its doors at the Old Fire Station on November 5, 2011, after the building was given a £3.5m revamp
- Oxford City Council owns the building, but has let Crisis occupy the centre rent-free on a five-year lease
- The charity sub-lets part of the building to Arts at the Old Fire Station, an independent charity which provides dance, art, theatre and music workshops