Turning the tables: the old furniture giving homeless people fresh chances

As figures released this week show rough sleeping in England has increased for the sixth year in a row, we profile the furniture reuse schemes giving homeless people new opportunities

The latest government figures on rough sleepers in England make for bleak reading. An estimated 4,134 people slept rough in 2016, an increase of 16 per cent on 2015 and more than double the figure in 2010. It is the sixth year in a row that the number has risen.

Meanwhile, 10m household items are sent to landfill each year, 3m of which, it is estimated, could be reused. The Furniture Re-use Network operates in this gap, supporting more than 200 charities who reach vulnerable people in crisis by readying old or discarded items for reuse.

Rough sleeping hotspots are Westminster in London, Brighton and Hove, Cornwall, Manchester and Luton, followed by Bristol. While a recent official rough sleeper count found 74 people on the streets there, the city council accepts the actual figure is likely to be higher.

The charity Changing Lives supports several homeless shelters in Bristol. Among the many formerly homeless people to have sought help within their walls is Jack. He was working as a carpenter in London but when his relationship with his fiancé broke down, he turned to alcohol to cope. Two years later, he lost his job and ended up living on the streets. “I was embarrassed. I didn’t want help from my family, I was too ashamed to tell them what had become of me,” he tells Positive News.

After finding himself homeless, Jack has now turned his life around

Having reached crisis point in London, Jack made his way to Bristol at which point he says he decided to turn his life around. “When you are on the streets, people look right through you. You are invisible to them. They look away, but in some ways, I was grateful. I wanted to be invisible. I didn’t want people to see me.”

On his first night in Bristol, Jack was given a crash course in surviving on the streets from some of the city’s regular rough sleepers. “They told me where to find an air vent for some warmth. I remember lying on the street and thinking, enough is enough. I waited until the nearest shopping centre opened so I could go wash my face, I looked in the mirror and I didn’t recognise the man I had become.”

I remember lying on the street and thinking, enough is enough

Jack eventually found his way to Alan Goddard, co-founder of Changing Lives. He supported Jack in getting off the streets and once Jack had his life together, Alan offered him a job. “I can’t thank Alan enough. Without him, I’m not sure where I’d be right now. I might not be alive,” says Jack.

Jack reveals he has now been clean for eight years and works refurbishing and upcycling furniture at Changing Lives. Though his own situation has improved vastly, Jack worries about people in similar positions. Across England, agencies working with homeless people have expressed concern about the impact of insecure tenancies, rising rents, benefits cuts and shortages of affordable housing in many parts of the country.

“With the cuts to homeless services, the work we do becomes even more important,” says Jack. “When you are on the streets you feel like you have no purpose. No reason to get up in the morning. Nowhere to be. Charities like Changing Lives can give you a light at the end of a horrendously dark tunnel. They literally changed my life.”

More than 500 miles away in Northern Ireland, East Belfast Mission (EBM) works to alleviate deprivation in an area where one in five children grows up in poverty. Funded by donations, the social enterprise not only sells low cost furniture and employs more than 100 staff, but also offers counselling services to those suffering from mental health problems such as depression or anxiety.

EBM helped Natasha find a home and furnish it. “The help I’ve received has been really life changing since I’d have felt helpless and lost without this support,” she says. “The move would have been a real challenge but with the newfound confidence I’d received from having a real home to live in, I feel ready to start out on a new direction in 2017.”

Emmaus Leeds is part of the wider Emmaus community that operates all over the country providing support to homeless people by selling secondhand furniture to support their shelters. Among those to have been helped by Emmaus Leeds is Alistair.

“About five years ago I lost my job and then three weeks later, out of the blue, my other half lost her job,” he tells Positive News. “It wasn’t bad at the start because we had savings but the pressure of us both being in that situation soon became too much. We were arguing day after day and eventually our relationship fell apart.

“With no place to go, I turned to my local council for help but there was nothing. I came to nearby Leeds thinking ‘big city, more help’. I slept rough for a few weeks at Leeds train station and one of the guys I met there told me about Emmaus.”

To be able to get up, throw myself at work and not watch TV all day long, was just what I needed

Luckily for Alistair, a room was available on the day he arrived at Emmaus Leeds. For a year and a half, he took on the role as community assistant there, working with computer data and running the charity’s market stalls and shop. He now has a job working in stock management for a supermarket chain – and lives in his own flat.

“If you ask me what I enjoyed most about Emmaus, I’d have to say the work. It was the work that kept me going – something to get up for every morning.

“When I first arrived, I’d just split up with my wife and wasn’t in a good place at all. To be able to get up, throw myself at work and not watch TV all day long, was just what I needed. That’s what I enjoyed the most.”

Images: Changing Lives

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