How to define ‘ordinary’? – My Word published in the Gazette & Herald Newspaper – March 2015

There is a very little known legal assessment tool that establishes the vulnerability of those who are homeless called the “Pereira Test”.

This test instructs authorities to ask the question, “will the applicant, by reason of whatever condition or circumstances assail him/her, suffer greater harm from homelessness than an ‘ordinary homeless person’?”

The relevance of this to the work of Doorway was recently highlighted when two of our guests who were rough sleeping, on the same day, received letters from Wiltshire Council stating that they were not entitled to the statutory duty because they were classified under the homelessness assessment as not being of a ‘high priority’.

And the reason why they were not a high priority was because “I do not believe that your medical condition impedes your daily activities and renders you less able to fend for yourself than an ordinary homeless person so that you would suffer injury or detriment R v Camden LBC ex p Pereira (1998).”

The question that really needs to be asked is how can someone determine just how vulnerable is an ‘ordinary homeless person’??

In Dec 2014 charities Shelter and Crisis challenged the government over the definition of the word ‘vulnerable’ for the purposes of housing those who were homeless and argued that the definition used by councils (and set out in 2006 government guidance) was leading to decisions being made based on resources available rather than the need of the individual.

There is no legal definition for the term ‘vulnerable’. It is not the definition that you will find in a dictionary. It is a definition that has evolved due to use in courtrooms and is incredibly subjective and therefore adaptable by any individual local authority in order to suit its own purposes, resources available (financial, support, housing etc) and statistical recording.

So just who actually is the ‘ordinary homeless person’?

In the Johnson v Solihukk MBC (2013) case the reviewing office used the Homeless Link’s Survey of Needs and Provisions (SNAP) 2010 report to make the decision that the applicant was homeless but not vulnerable.

Unfortunately, for the outcome of the case, the Homeless Link report found that 92% of homeless services were working with people who were experiencing problems with drugs and that drugs were among the issues most frequently affecting the users of homelessness services.  Therefore the applicant’s circumstances were considered to be no different to the ‘ordinary homeless person’ and he was just not vulnerable enough.

In the words of my GP colleague: “Over the course of my many  years as a Wiltshire GP, I’ve been well used  to helping people with their housing requests by specifically addressing  their potential vulnerability were they to become street homeless (or, less often as a GP, their current vulnerability if they are already rough sleepers).”

“I had already worked out that alcohol or other substance abuse alone will not be deemed by the Council’s Housing department to constitute ‘vulnerability’ in themselves, although I certainly disagree with them.”

“However, I am taken aback by what seems to be the current interpretation, ie that mental health issues in the very common ‘dual diagnosis’ pairing with substance abuse do not count as making people ‘less able to fend for themselves’ than other street homeless, on the grounds that most other people on the streets have similar problems!”

“This seems to me to be an unjust and inhumane interpretation of the Pereira judgement, and I shall do my very best to fight this wherever and whenever I see it being used.

“I would also add that the very common ‘dual diagnosis’ combination of mental health and substance abuse problems, often due to past traumatic events, is currently not managed ideally in this area. The psychiatry services will usually not help people with active substance misuse issues, however ‘chicken and egg’ the situation may be, and housing seem to be taking a similar line.”

So if you’re planning on being homeless any time in the near future then just make sure that you are way more vulnerable than the ‘ordinary homeless person’.

Update 9th April 2015

It is with great regret that I learned this week that one of the guys mentioned above died.

Whilst I am still awaiting the post mortem results, I would argue that all rough sleepers are vulnerable and that no one should ever be defined and stamped as ‘an ordinary homeless’ person.

To us, at Doorway, each person who accesses our services is a human being. Not just a name on a piece of paper or a statistic to be briefly noted and then ultimately forgotten. 

We do not have the answers. We cannot make all the bad stuff go away. We cannot make other services / organisations do the ‘right thing’.

What we can do is just simply care. Enough to carry on speaking out on behalf of those who don’t have a voice.

RIP mate.

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On the streets for 16 years… out of choice

On the streets for 16 years… out of choice

10:23pm Wednesday 11th March 2015

By Julie Armstrong

ColinCOLIN is a chatty fellow but is momentarily lost for words when asked the meaning of ‘home’.

Tonight, forecast minus three, he will sleep on the porch of Kington St Michael Church after dining from a skip at the back of Iceland.

After sleeping rough for 16 years this is nothing new. It is not because he has seen his business go under or his benefits sanctioned, but because this is the life he chooses.

Colin, 63, said: “Some of my friends have settled down, put themselves on the housing list. The last time I had a flat was 1999.

“I don’t sign on, I don’t even use night shelters, I’m an outdoors kind of guy. If I’m outside I can smoke. I’ve been smoking for 50 years.”

Despite having the rare chance to sit somewhere warm at a drop-in session of North Wiltshire homeless charity Doorway, he would rather we spoke outside where the temperature is 5C. Even in the time we talk he is soon on his feet, wanting to take a stroll to the river.

Why so cheerful? “I haven’t got the worries,” he said. “The important thing growing up is to take on responsibility, to feel like you are a fully fledged citizen. I am a child of the 60s; it was a very irresponsible decade.”

Asked if he has any aspirations, he chuckles and says, “To get this thing lit”. When his struggle with the dog end is won, he takes great care to move away so his choice of smoking is not imposed on me. For someone growing up in an “irresponsible decade”, Colin has impeccable manners. As we approach a rain splashed bench he insists on placing his jacket over it to shield me from the wet.

Possessions are dismissed as “pointless”, people owning them as having “something to lose”. “Their bank accounts get raided by the internet,” he said. “I’m not in their vulnerable position.”

As if to illustrate this point, a bird passing above chooses to leave its mark on my coat. Colin’s thought on this impertinence is, “Cleanliness can be a phobia, it can become an obsession. It ruins our lives. I’ve made walking mine, because it came so natural to me.

“I never learned to drive, what’s the rush? There’s nowhere I have to be for a particular time. I daren’t start making commitments.

“It’s all about speed now. How good something is, it’s always measured by how fast it works. I don’t wear a watch, and I don’t have a phone. No one needs to reach me for a particular reason, and that’s nice to know. I make a point of not having phone numbers or stuff like that. If it’s meant to be, it happens. It’s a bit of magic.”

Does he find this lifestyle lonely? “Some of the characters I’ve met, if I was desperate for company I could easily have ended up in prison,” he said. “Although I’m a loner, at least I know what I’m doing, I don’t get myself into trouble.

“People say to me, why don’t you get yourself in prison, over the winter, you get three meals a day. The number of times I’ve heard that.

“That would be quite acceptable to them.”

Something approaching scorn peeks through his gentle tone and I am taken aback by such pride from a man who has nothing but what he can carry.

“I don’t beg,” he said. “If I meet lots begging in the streets of Bristol and Bath, I’ve to remind myself they have an addiction. I don’t drink now. I used to, but I’m in my 60s and it’s important to get old gracefully.

“That’s the little bit of pride I’ve got. I’m not laid here with a load of empty cider cans around me. That’s having no power at all.”

Being in control is important to Colin. He has shunned everything that threatened to limit his freedom – a phone, a watch, even hygiene is viewed as a possible obsession. The only thing he obsesses about is walking, his need to roam akin to someone more conventional pining for home.

This is why he doesn’t sign on – it would interfere with his wanderlust. “It’s the buzz of seeing what’s over the next hill, I never get fed up of it,” he said. “Just to hear the birdcall, it is a wonderful thing.”

It’s 4.30pm and the light is drawing in. Doesn’t he get cold? He laughs and points to his legs. “No, I’ve got these boys. I’ll just walk through the night.”

Imagine a world where you are encumbered by nothing and beholden to no one. No duties, no deadlines, no hassle. This is Colin’s utopia.

The flip side is his dinner, if it materialises, will most likely be out of a skip, but that doesn’t bother him. He is free – and his freedom is what matters.

© Copyright 2001-2015 Newsquest Media Group

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Partner Profile – specialist drug and alcohol agency

I attend Doorway on a Thursday lunchtime for an hour in my role as a Recovery Worker for the Wiltshire Substance Misuse Service, currently run by Turning Point.  This provides an opportunity for me to represent my agency positively in the community, to be the approachable face of drug and alcohol services, to take information, provide support and also to keep my finger on the pulse, for Doorway is in my view the heart of Chippenham.

The reasons why a guest might want to speak to me are many and various.  Staff point guests towards me when they know that someone needs help or advice in connection with a drug or alcohol issue.  Sometimes a natural conversation develops when passing the ketchup or I can speak to a person in a side room if they require privacy.  Some people are already service users known to me, some are just passing through.  Our client group cover a wide social demographic but it is at Doorway that I meet the people without a letterbox or phone or diary, those who might not know or remember their next appointment or even their last.  I can check with the office there and then and write down the appointment for the guest or relay messages from the office to service users; I can encourage and remind.  My interactions at Doorway vary from a laugh and a joke over a fine cauliflower cheese to listening to the pain of a guest on the edge.  I can empathise and signpost and I hope be a useful ear but can also alert my colleagues; if their client is in a difficult space we can set up a phone call later in the day from that person’s worker or arrange an urgent appointment.

Doorway helps people to help themselves, a philosophy very much in the spirit of my agency’s current way of working. The combination of practical help and unconditional love provided at Doorway is highly valued by guests and I am grateful to be able to suggest Doorway to our service users as an effective support option.  In these times where vulnerable people are having their benefits cut for tenuous reasons and some people have no funds and no social connection Doorway is a life saver.  Hunger and loneliness kill and Doorway can help with both.

Doorway informs my practice as a worker and my understanding as a person.  I watch and learn as both paid staff and volunteers treat so many different kinds of people with kindness and respect.  I see volatile situations diffused quietly and efficiently and how established guests respect the sensible boundaries set and encourage others to do the same.  I meet workers from other agencies, such as Community 4 or WASP, and learn from them.  I am challenged.  I hear the word on the street.  Going to Doorway, for me and my colleagues, is one of the highlights of the working week and we value the relationship we have with this special project.  Long may it continue.

Gail Foster, Recovery Worker

Wiltshire Substance Misuse Service

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A random act of kindness

A random act of kindness set the ball rolling for a treat for the Doorway Women’s Group.

Acts of kindness are not something that the women expect so for Maria Christina hairdressing salon on Chippenham to offer to open their doors solely for our ladies was just that.

For most of us going to the hairdressers is a part of life, we just do it, and it makes us feel better ourselves. A bad haircut or a bad hair day is not good.

I hadn’t really thought about haircuts regarding our women or even how they could afford salon prices. I knew that sometimes they cut their own hair or that friend would it for them, but when Maria offered her services it was brought into my consciousness.

We had to cajole and persuade some of the women to come as this wasn’t normal:

“why would a hair salon be offering this, what do they want?”

Tuesday came, I think all of us were a bit nervous but there was no need. We were warmly welcomed, put at ease and treated with such kindness that it didn’t take long for us to be enjoying the whole experience.

New hairstyles and certainly lots of chat and laughter filled the salon, so heart-warming (I definitely welled up a few times).

Maria and her ‘girls’ were great and equally enjoyed the afternoon. What a treat to have a salon close their doors and just be opened for us. And this isn’t a one time experience, we are going to be regularly booked in.

A big big thank you to Maria and her staff for their random act of kindness from everyone at the Women’s Group.

Mary, Support Worker & Women’s Group Facilitator.

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A “Green” Bag-Packer (Part 3)

Spent another great day at Sainsburys yesterday bag packing with Doorway.

Again the customers were great with their generosity and friendliness and so were the staff, special thanks to Jenna for  “allowing” me to go outside for a smoke break !

On my first session in November a lot of people were saying what a fantastic job “us” volunteers were doing. So the following Monday I spoke  to Lisa at the regular breakfast session asking how she felt about me in future if I could actually tell people that I was a “guest” doing a little bit to give something back for everything that Doorway do for us. She said that if I felt comfortable with that then yes go for it.

Well yesterday I was able to tell people that I was in fact a guest doing my little bit and telling them how Doorway help me and the other guests (I’m sure they would all agree with me) with the support and services they are all willing to give us, which is fantastic. Once the customers and staff were aware that I was indeed a guest they were all in awe hearing my side of the equation, of the help we do receive from Doorway. Two instances stick out in my mind.

1. One couple who said they always support Doorway especially with the harvest festival collections at their local church were impressed when I thanked them on behalf of all the guests for their support and what it meant to us.

2.  A five year old boy out shopping with his father sat in the trolley asked why I had a green shirt on and what was the bucket for he replied ask him. So we had a 5 minute conversation on why we were there, he then asked his dad if he could put some money in the bucket which with a grin on his face duly did, then saying he was going to tell mummy when he got home what he’d done and with a smile on his face waved goodbye I waved back of course with an even bigger smile on my face, it really made my day.

Thanks again to all the customers and staff at Sainsburys and especially to “team” Doorway for letting me be involved, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day out.  I’m Ready for part 4!!    

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The Corporate Scourge

Corporate control

It’s devouring us

Money over love

Let’s fight this scourge

Governments work for them

Business interests

Come before the state

Let’s fight this scourge

Most of humanity’s unaware

Do they know or do they care

Too busy watching cheap tv

Wanna be a celebrity


This speaks from a place of outrage but it’s vibrant and eloquent, too. It may be unfinished yet even as a fragment it says enough to be perfectly intelligible. It contains a sentiment that can be easy to ridicule—characterise as naïve, but I feel its power. It does seem (to me, as well) that unelected corporations and plutocrats are all-powerful and it is to their benefit if ‘humanity’ is distracted by the ‘bread and circuses’ of ‘cheap tv’ and ‘celebrity’. Questioning the status quo is very important and C understands that we should never lose sight of this nor the right to do so.

When C came to the writing group this song lyric was already in her head. She said it fitted to the tune of…but couldn’t quite remember the name of singer or song. She hummed a few bars but even then I had no idea what it was. But having a tune or rhythm in mind is a useful way of starting a song lyric or poem. Perhaps I should use my own advice more often (that would be a first).

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Doorway, Social Exclusion & the Berlin Wall – Guest Opinion Column published in the Gazette & Herald Newspaper – Jan 2015

Way way back, 25 years ago, in November 1989 the Berlin wall was brought down by the people of Berlin. Not by the authorities but by the people on both sides working towards a common goal of freedom and inclusion. Because they believed that they were capable of bringing about change as a united force against the East German communist society that had repressed the population behind the wall for 38 years.

Now I remember watching the event, on television, as a 20yr old student with that marvellous feeling when one is still young and naïve that anything is possible if enough people believe in the potential outcome. Unfortunately, over the years the cynicism monster grows within us and slowly gets more powerful until the stage that you think there is no point in attempting something because you’re never going to make a substantial difference anyway.

And then you stumble upon an organisation like Doorway. Which against all the odds continues to make a difference to the everyday lives of a number of people year after year. And okay maybe it is not as dramatic as a 100 mile wall tumbling down one cold night in Berlin, but actually the underlying issues are really very similar

Because as Doorway celebrates our tenth birthday this year it is worth looking at why there is a need for the organisation to exist in the first place and the common theme running through all the different stories of our guests is that of social exclusion.

Social exclusion is formally defined as “the failure of society to provide certain individuals and groups with those rights and benefits normally available to its members, such as employment, adequate housing, health care, education and training etc”

Now we at Doorway are unable to actually eradicate the numerous instances of social exclusion for those who are accessing our service but what we can do, very successfully, is minimise the damage caused by the failure of society to provide those rights and benefits.

And so, over the last year we have worked very hard at empowering our guests to develop a resilience to the constant battering they may get from both statutory agencies and society as a whole, both of which build barrier after barrier to them accessing the services that they so deserve as human beings.

This is achieved by building on the basic foundations of the extra activities that we provide for our guests – the football training, music workshops, writing group and the women’s group – which have all played a major part in our aim of increasing the motivation and self-worth of those who access our services. This has subsequently enabled our guests to have more confidence in tackling those everyday issues in their lives concerning addictions, housing, finances and debts, unemployment and mental health issues all of which contribute to the general feeling of isolation and of social exclusion.

So much of our work at Doorway is spent in compiling ‘hard’ outcomes for funders that sometimes it is difficult to remember that the ‘soft’ outcomes matter just as much to people on a daily basis – we can make someone feel better about themselves for even just a short period of time each week. It’s not all about the statistics and how many people have gained employment or housing, it’s often about the journey towards those goals and involves increasing self-confidence, self-worth, and motivating people to not give up along the way no matter how many hurdles are thrown at them by both statutory agencies and society as a whole.

The vast majority of our work over the last year has been concerned with the fallout from the introduction of the devastating swathe of welfare reforms in April 2013. I predicted, in my article in the G&H in  February 2013, the onset of ‘a perfect storm’ and explained that a combination of factors including falling incomes, rising costs of living, increasing unemployment, a lack of decent jobs and the proposed benefit cuts would affect those who were already very vulnerable.

And, unfortunately I was right in my predictions. More and more people have been driven into debt, hunger and homelessness over the last year. The bedroom tax, cuts in council tax benefits, the ending of disability living allowance, the benefit cap, just to name a few of the reforms, have all contributed to the fact that our workload has substantially increased in volume over the last year.

Over the last few months other, newly introduced, factors have contributed to the demand on our services. These include firstly the removal of the ability to apply for new benefit claims over the phone and replaced with the compulsory method of online applications; the vast majority of people who access our drop-in sessions are unable to complete these hour long applications and are therefore reliant on one of the Doorway support workers to assist them.

Secondly, the introduction of severe benefit sanctions which have a knock on effect. Often the individual will only be aware of the sanction after it has been put in place and therefore after the housing benefit has also been stopped, thereby ensuring that the rent hasn’t been paid and the person is even further in debt and also at risk of losing their tenancy.

Add to this the ongoing severe lack of funding in this county for statutory services including drug and alcohol rehabilitation services, a crisis mental health team that is itself in crisis, and the funding cuts to our partner organisations such as the Citizen Advice Bureau which have led to a reduction in their team of specialist employed staff and it is no wonder that we are inundated with the complexity of people’s everyday needs.

There are still so many moments in my working life when the cynicism monster rears its ugly head and I am filled with monumental despair and frustration and an insurmountable doubt in our ability to actually make a difference to the lives of those who are so dependent on our organisation. But it is also those very moments that keep me motivated to continue to fight for the right of everyone in our community to be able to access those rights and benefits that they are entitled to as human beings.

And that is where the work of Doorway is so critical, we exist in order to support all those whilst they continue their struggle to be more inclusive in society. And so, every moment spent at Doorway is almost like small chunks of the Berlin wall repeatedly falling down day after day after day…

Posted in Alcohol, Benefits, Charity, Chippenham, Drugs, Football, Health, Homelessness, Mental Health, Music, News, Poetry, Volunteering, Welfare Reform, Wiltshire, Women's Group | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments