Doorway to a better life – by Brian Tregunna

Chippenham based charity Doorway is attracting attention from the USA for the way its work with homeless and vulnerable people is improving lives. Doorway is an award-winning drop-in centre providing a friendly, safe haven for adults who are homeless or who have issues such as alcohol and drug addiction, debt, mental health problems or poor life skills.

When Mark Horvath, who works with the homeless in Los Angeles, was sponsored by British Airways to research the UK’s approach to these issues, he chose Doorway as the only centre outside London that he felt he simply had to visit. “Doorway is doing some amazing work and I just had to see it for myself. Now that I have visited the centre, met chief executive Lisa Lewis and witnessed what happens there, I am overwhelmed by the set-up.”

Homelessness is often a hidden problem in rural areas like Wiltshire. many people find it difficult to understand or accept that there is poverty and homelessness. Doorway deals with such problems by not only providing guests with the everyday basics, such as freshly cooked food, laundry and shower facilities, sleeping bags and clothing, but also by offering activities such as musiccreative writing, art workshops and football; all of which aim to build self-esteem and teach new skills as a first step to improving their lives. The most significant role, however is as a signposting and befriending service in association with a range of partner agencies.

Lisa Lewis says: “Our staff and volunteers build trusting relationships with guests then guide them to access services such as New Highway (alcohol and drugs), Cranstoun (drugs) and Community 4 (accommodation) who regularly attend the centre”.

The set-up at Doorway, which relies heavily on fund-raising and donations to keep going, is probably best explained by Mark Horvath. “I was very impressed with how all the local support services engaged with rough sleepers during the session, but what blew me away is that when I walked into the main room I could not tell who was staff or who was a guest. Normally, when I visit a day centre I see all the homeless people by themselves watching TV, playing card games, sleeping in a corner, or just hanging out. At Doorway each and every table had our rough sleeping friends and staff and volunteers mixed together, it was gorgeous.”

It is sometimes said that people choose to be homeless but a recent Doorway survey showed that just 2% of guests made that lifestyle choice; even then, there were factors that influenced such a decision. The reasons for homelessness can be complex, but are often due to a breakdown in relationships at home, financial problems, mental health issues, alcohol and drug addiction. The average age of guests at Doorway is 34, but a third are under 25, reflecting the growing number of young people who are struggling to make a good start to their lives.

Few people in our local communities have to deal directly with the consequences of homelessness, but there is a cost to society that we all have to bear, whether through crime, medical aid, or welfare support. On a personal basis, homelessness is a dignity issue; it removes people’s choices of essential basics such as accommodation, food, use of the bathroom and privacy. Lisa Lewis explains: “Our work benefits not only the individuals who attend the drop-in, but the wider community, as guests are supported to move on in their lives, away from substance dependency and reliance n welfare benefits.”

Perhaps the final comments should be left to one of the guests who has benefited from Doorway’s excellent support. Steve (not his real name) is an ex-serviceman who lost his job and home. “People often say ‘it will never happen to me’ “, he says. “Well, regrettably it did happen to me. Doorway, as the name implies, is an opening to a new and better life, and without their help and support, I know I would not be in a position to say that ’yes, I have got a new life’”

Doorway is clearly drawing plaudits from far and wide for its life-improving work with the homeless and other people in need. It seems inevitable that such work will be much needed for the foreseeable future, in which case Doorway can expect to attract even more interest from other organisations that want to learn from their work. In the meantime, let’s be pleased and proud that Wiltshire is blessed with such an effective, forward-thinking service.

(Brian Tregunna is a volunteer at Doorway. This article was first published in Wiltshire Life, December 2012 issue. We are grateful to them for allowing us to reproduce the article here)

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