Lifeline for Lancaster’s homeless facing uncertain future

Staff member Hayley Morris, residents John Laing, Gary Patrick Brennan and Steven Waring, and operations manager Adam Treasure
Staff member Hayley Morris, residents John Laing, Gary Patrick Brennan and Steven Waring, and operations manager Adam Treasure

A homeless service in Lancaster faces an uncertain future just months after it opened.

Here, Nick Lakin speaks to residents at Oak Tree House about the importance of the service and why it matters to those in a state of crisis.

In September, Ian (not his real name) became homeless for the first time in his life. To complicate matters, his 17-year-old daughter – currently studying for her A-Levels at Lancaster Girls Grammar School – also found herself in the same boat.

John Laing and Steven Waring.

John Laing and Steven Waring.

Wanting to ensure she finished her studies to give her the best possible start in life, her dad resisted returning to his native Scotland and presented himself to Lancaster City Council’s homeless team.

He was directed to Oak Tree House - a homeless service in the city which faces an uncertain future just eight months after it opened.

Residents at the 23-bed accommodation in West Road, which caters for rough sleepers and people with complex needs, say the service has saved their life, and could not imagine how things may have turned out if it wasn’t for the support it gave them while at their lowest ebb.

The service, run by Adactus Housing, is deemed “non-statutory” and faces having its £223,000 a year funding removed as part of Lancashire County Council’s drive to save millions of pounds following huge government cuts.

Oak Tree House

Oak Tree House

Ian, who has lived in Lancaster for 30 years, was anxious at first, and his preconceptions about homelessness were a worry to him, further adding to his stress.

“I thought that the majority of homeless people were either drug users or alcoholics - but how wrong was I,” he said.

“I was a carer for eight years, and my mum died this year. I was a bit down and things fell apart and me and my daughter found ourselves homeless.

“I have arthritis and a twisted spine, and while my daughter managed to stay with her friend for a bit, it was really hard.

“But I have been really surprised with this place. They put me at ease straight away. They’re always there to help and reassure, and it’s confidential. They make sure you can eat properly.

“If this wasn’t here it would have added to my stress and I could have been on the street.”

Ian is not alone in his praise for Oak Tree House.

John Laing, 36, from Morecambe, was in rehab for six months battling alcoholism and when he came out, he had nowhere to go.

“I went to the council and they referred me here, and it’s just been amazing,” he said.

“This place has given me a community spirit because I’ve made friends really easily. Because of the communal areas, you get to know people, you can be cooking, having a chat.

“When I first came in I was scared but I’ve been made to feel so welcome by the staff who’ve been really supportive, and of course the residents as well.

“You can talk and relate to them, you get a chance to speak and be heard, and I’m now making progress.”

Fellow resident Steven Waring, 31, from Lancaster, said the support he has received made him feel wanted again.

He said: “We’d be on the streets if it wasn’t for this place. I’ve never been homeless before and this place has picked me up and made me feel wanted. I was in hospital before I came here but it’s this place that has saved my life. If it wasn’t for Oak Tree House I’d be on the streets, and I might have died.

“I now feel like I’ve got a purpose in life. They push you forward to do better in life.”

Oak Tree House was initially met with opposition from local residents, but operations manager Adam Treasure said there was now a strong and positive relationship between the community and his team.

He said: “It’s the uncertainty over the last few years that’s causing the most concern.

“There are the usual processes every time a contract comes to an end, but there’s always been a continuance of service and some assurance.

“The difference here is that all non-statutory services are coming to an end, and Oak Tree House is deemed as one of those.

“There was nothing like this in the Lancaster district for the over 25.

“With places like this it’s the opportunity of having staff to support people through the process.

“The goal is to support them into the community to help them become a successful member of society and to help people live their lives.”

Adam said that since April, 103 people had been referred to Oak Tree House, and of those, there had been 14 “positive moves”. He said the value of the service was unquantifiable, and it reduced pressure on many other already under-resourced public services.

“If you just look at the 14 people that moved on positively - their lives have been transformed,” he said.

“With services like this, there’s a huge return on the investment.

“It’s how we contribute to the other areas which I don’t think has been well mapped.

“If it was it would be recognised that people would be getting locked up for small offences, filling up the custody cells, repeat hospital admissions, presenting to mental health services - which are already struggling as well. When people come here they’re on licence agreement and conditions to support and show willingness to move forward.

“There are people on a waiting list for Oak Tree House, so we have to be quite stringent.

“We do formalised training such as Tenancy Ready Training, which basically prepares people for independent living.

“We’ve found that once they’ve mentioned that to private landlords, it’s broken that stigma.”

Two months after he moved in to Oak Tree House, Ian is close to becoming a “positive move”.

This week he recently accepted a two bed Adactus owned property which he can share with his daughter.

He said: “Once you’re on the road to helping yourself a lot more, you get moved up a stage and you get moved into an ensuite room, and then you’re sent to the flats, which is where I am now.

“My daughter is now able to come and visit every night, so I can cook her a meal, and she can stay two nights a week. It’s my daughter’s last year of A-Levels but the school has been really great.

“Both my daughter and I will be volunteering here in the future and I’d like to get a part time job with the employers’ understanding of my arthritis. There should be more places like this. It’s like a community with everyone watching out for eachother.

“Some that come in are in a real state, but within a month they’re getting back on track.”

Lancashire County Council said the agreed proposal to stop funding the non-statutory part of its Supporting People budget will save £5.85m.

However it would continue funding services for homeless 16 and 17 year-olds.

County Coun Tony Martin, cabinet member for adult and community services, said: “This is just one of many extremely difficult decisions we are currently faced with. In order to manage such unprecedented financial challenges, we have to consider options like this so we can continue to deliver services that we must provide by law, such as adult and children’s social care.

“It’s important that we fund people who are facing crisis situations, so we are proposing to set up a Prevention and Early Help Fund, with an annual revenue budget of £3m from 1 April. This would be a flexible ‘safety net’ to provide one-off support to individuals and families at times when they need it most.

“There will be a consultation on these proposals over the next few weeks, and Full Council will make its final decision on the budget in February.”

The £5.85m savings that were agreed at cabinet last week would come into effect from April 2016, if agreed by Full Council in February.

However, money from the county council’s reserves will fund most of these services so they can continue to be delivered until March 2017.

Coun Karen Leytham, Lancaster City Council’s cabinet member with responsibility for health and housing, said: “This is a much needed service and the city council will be working with Adactus and Lancashire County Council over the coming months to explore all possible options to continue its operation.”