Please don't look away
Cecil Weir, fundraising director at Julian House, explains more about the charity’s crucial work
Photography: Kasia Fiszer Words: Kate Authers
It’s easy to think that homelessness is something that could never happen us, but the reality is that it could happen to anyone. The number of people sleeping rough has risen nationwide and there’s no shortage of people falling on tough times. So why is it that this marginalised group of people on the edge of society are so often dehumanised, thought of as intimidating, and generally ignored?
“There’s an unnatural fear, and it stems from a lack of understanding,” explains Cecil. “They could be someone’s parent, someone’s son or daughter, maybe someone’s sibling, and yet there’s this disconnect that they’re just ordinary people in a bad place. Actually, their stories are really fascinating when you take the time to find out where they’ve come from and what they’ve done.
“I genuinely think that somehow people imagine that homeless people aren’t born, they’re produced in Mordor in a big cauldron, and they come out growling. They don’t consider that the person on the street was once a child, did all these normal things, but somewhere along the line it’s gone wrong for them.”
So rather than worry about coming across as patronising, or giving money, what’s the best thing that we can do to help?
“It’s quite a well-worn saying, but it’s true, that people’s kindness can kill,” says Cecil. “Begging is illegal and we support that stance. People on the streets still have access to benefits, so when they’re asking for money, it may well be used to feed the problems that are keeping them on the streets. We’d advise that it’s much better to give charitable donations to the agencies dedicated to helping those on the streets. Just talking to them can work wonders too.”
People often worry about what they should say, what advice would you give?
“You could just say, ‘I don’t want to give you money, but can I buy you a hot drink or a sandwich?’ and let the conversation go from there,” says Cecil. He also reminds us that it’s perfectly normal for people’s survival instincts to kick in when they’re on the streets. “If any of us were in that situation, we’d blag a bit, tell a few porkies to try and get what we need,” he says. “So if you start with that basis, you can put that to one side and talk to them as human beings.”
The night shelter is completely free
When homeless people ask for money to get into the night shelter, it’s worth remembering that the night shelter is free. As well as offering three meals a day, it’s a real lifeline to those who use it.
“Understandably, the hostel gets the main profile because that’s the really emotional part of what we do,” says Cecil. “You’ve got people in a desperate state on the streets and the thing that offers solace from that really dangerous place is the hostel. It really is just a stepping stone, because it doesn’t solve anything, it just satisfies the basic human need for shelter.
“The hostel provides stability so that we can really understand what those issues are for that individual and then devise a plan to get them to a much better place. Ultimately, what we want to do is integrate them back into the local community, wherever that is.”
While the hostel is a really important part of Julian House’s work, it’s really just the start of any homeless person’s journey. “We do more to address the issues and re-settle clients than we do in terms of just putting an emergency bed there for them,” explains Cecil. “A much bigger part of what we do is supported accommodation.”
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as taking back empty properties (of which Bath seems to have a prolific number) from greedy landlords, and using them for housing for those in need.
“That might be a small part of the solution,” says Cecil, “but the trouble is, our clients are so disconnected, so marginalised, that it would just be a recipe for disaster. It’s not about mollycoddling them, it’s about providing a stepping stone and an environment where they can get the support that’s going to take them to that ultimate place. In an ideal world, that goal is self-sustaining accommodation and
that’s what we hope most of our clients will achieve.”
Not all of Julian House’s clients are ready to get a job, but those who are can take advantage of the social enterprise opportunities run by the charity. For instance, Julian House now has four bike workshops across the South West.
“One of the key functions of our social enterprises is to give people purpose to get up in the morning,” says Cecil. “As any of us that have been unemployed will know, it’s quite easy to drift and lose your self-esteem, and our clients are no different than anybody else. Our social enterprises also allow them to take responsibility and do things, make and repair things, and relate to people in a workplace environment again, rather than surviving on the street.”
Julian House also has a bike workshop within Erlestoke Prison, which is proving beneficial in the rehabilitation process. It provides the opportunity to work alongside low-level offenders and help them follow a better path. “Again, it’s not about mollycoddling people who have been a nuisance in society,” says Cecil. “We help them break the prison cycle by providing short-term hostel accommodation and helping to ensure that they meet probation obligations; the success rate we’ve achieved has been fantastic. It also has a much wider benefit for society in terms of lower acquisitive crime and lower numbers of people becoming homeless.”
While Cecil fell into the voluntary sector almost by accident – ironically after a decade or so promoting alcohol and pubs – the 18 years he’s spent working for Julian House has had a huge impact on not only changing people’s lives, but in some instances, saving them.
“It may be a cliché, but it’s true, and a lot of my colleagues would say the same, it’s lovely to think that you’re making a difference,” says Cecil. “It’s about trying to empower and make things better. It’s not without its trials and tribulations, but I get up in the morning and I look forward to most days.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Julian House is the main provider of services to women and men escaping domestic violence and abuse across the region and they have a number of local hostels. Many homeless clients, particularly women, have experienced domestic abuse.
Julian House has operated a successful reconnection policy for a number of years. People who present as homeless in Bath but have no local connection, are only allowed support for a relatively short period of time. It’s proven that their prospects of reconnecting back into the community are hugely increased if they return to the place they’ve spent the majority of their life.
HOW CAN I HELP?
You can donate items to Julian House charity shops or directly to their clients. Gifts like non-perishable food e.g. coffee, tinned fruit, biscuits, baked beans or clothes, blankets and sleeping bags are kindly accepted.
Volunteering your time or services at Julian House can effect real change, and it’s deeply rewarding for you, too. There are various positions, from befriender to mentor, bike mechanic, charity shop volunteer and more via the website.
Clare Teal’s Festive Fiesta, 11 December 2018
It’s never too early to plan for Christmas. Jazz singer Clare Teal will be serving up her ever-evolving Festive Fiesta – with special guests Pee Wee Ellis, Jason Rebello and Kate Dimbleby. All proceeds will be donated to Julian House. 8pm, £25.
Kilimanjaro Challenge, June 2019
If you’re looking for a challenge, while also fundraising for an all-important cause, make sure you set the date in your diary for this adventure of a lifetime. The five-day trek to the ‘roof of Africa’ promises incredible sights and experiences.