Homelessness – the increasing number of people literally living on our streets is perhaps the most stark and immediate problem currently facing not merely Liverpool, but this nation and indeed every other city and country on Earth. These days society – and certainly social media – perpetuates the idea of the celebration of success; the, look at me doing so well, ideal. Meanwhile, there are ever growing numbers of people on the streets on Merseyside whom literally go unnoticed, yet whom sleep in some of the busiest thoroughfares. Here at Signature Living, we feel that this problem is one which we would dearly like to attempt to combat.
With the growth of our company over the past decade, we began to experience the problem of homeless people consistently entering our various properties. We found that as the weather worsened, the numbers would increase over a range of sites. The primary problem, as we discovered, was neither theft nor criminal damage, rather that these people simply wanted somewhere warm to go.
It was at this point that our founder, Lawrence Kenwright – whose ethos of Entrepreneurial Socialism would see its initial manifestation – decided to open Kingsway House for the specific purpose of addressing the issue whilst also relieving the numbers over a range of company properties. The amount of people whom sought to take advantage of this facility was approaching 100-per-night in atrocious weather. Due to a combination of the sheer amount of people allied to the inherently linked conditions of drug addiction, alcoholism and depression, we began to come under pressure to close the facility. It was at this point that Lawrence came up with the idea of purchasing a bespoke property in order to attempt to address this issue. The location he chose was in Vauxhall: at Cotton Street.
Our experience at Kingsway House had illustrated some of the secondary problems in dealing with Homelessness. If we were to set up such an initiative it had to be more than simply a refuge. It had to provide optimism; to provide hope to those bereft of hope; a tangible, achievable and fully supported route back into society. As a concept, it is relatively easy to describe, however, it is far more difficult to turn into reality.
The facility was opened on October 10th, 2018: World Homelessness Day. Staff were recruited – often with homelessness and addiction issues in their past, although, now clean and whom would serve as examples to those that followed. And, it is a very arduous but not an impossible road. It can be done. Fourteen individual pods or large garden sheds, all with personal locks, were provided. These not only gave the immediate relief of shelter but, as we would discover, they began to be decorated, tidied and cared for by the occupants. They began to become short-term homes. It was a start. A mental leap. To these were added access to services – specifically detoxification advice and support. The aim was for our residents to come off drugs and/or alcohol completely – and eventually to gain a paid position within Signature Living and ultimately reintegrate themselves into society.
Our staff have evolved over our first year but with stalwarts like Brian Phillips – a long-term addict and homeless person who first met Lawrence whilst in a doorway on Old Hall Street in Liverpool city centre. Brian told me earlier that it was his intention that evening to throw himself in the Mersey as he was at his wits end. He only stopped in Old Hall Street as he was weary. As it turned out, it would be the night that changed his life. Brian is now not only a huge feature within our initiative, but he goes out every week on the streets of Liverpool handing out food parcels and raising awareness of our objectives at Cotton Street. He is known and he is trusted. Brian usually wears a suit with Batman or Superman on and a large top hat. I said to him recently that not all Superheroes wear capes, some wear suits with other Superheroes on them. Brian, as I alluded to earlier, is the example. He is the, do as I do not as I say, person. Brian is special.
Simon Whitter is our Project Manager. Simon himself has experienced problems with homelessness in his past but is now settling into a new home following a recent move with his partner and baby daughter. We do not allow drugs or alcohol into the residency at Cotton Street. We do have a simple shelter facility for anyone merely seeking to get out of the weather but for those wishing to change a level of commitment from both parties is pre-requisite. Simon is responsible – amongst many other things – for implementing these standards. His experience in the field has proven to be invaluable to our project. We feel that there must be an element of motivation, of tough love, for real change to occur. This is Simon’s primary role at Cotton Street.
As I compile this piece it is September 6th. In 2019, to date, at the project there have been 9 residents who have gotten clean of street drugs, successfully moved back into employment and begun to rebuild their broken lives. That is one-per-month for the year. We at Signature Living feel that is a statistic of which we can justifiably be proud of but, moreover, we are one company. Imagine if we could find the resources or political will to increase that figure to 90 or even 900? Now that would be progress indeed.
During the run-up to our first anniversary, I shall be compiling a variety of these short pieces to illustrate what it is that we do at Cotton Street. Please research us further online or alternatively come down and see for yourselves. Visits to the facility can be arranged with a minimum of prior notification. This issue confronts us all every day. We at Signature Living feel it is time to bring it to the public and political stage. We intend to continue to work to that end. We would be delighted if you would join us.
With the help of the NHS, Merseycare, council officials, agencies and the people of Liverpool, we’re stronger together, and can really make a difference.