Graphic: ‘Without them I would either be in prison or dead’ - homeless man gains fresh hope from Norwich charity

St Martins Housing Trust Bishopbridge House service user James Vale in his room.Picture by SIMON FIN

St Martins Housing Trust Bishopbridge House service user James Vale in his room.Picture by SIMON FINLAY. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

A Norwich night shelter has experienced a surge in the number of homeless people needing help, a charity boss has revealed.

Derek Player, general manager of St Martins Housing Trust and Bishopbridge House manager Maria Platt

Derek Player, general manager of St Martins Housing Trust and Bishopbridge House manager Maria Platt at the Norwich drop-in centre.Picture by SIMON FINLAY. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

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Derek Player, general manager of St Martins Housing Trust, said that the number of people who stayed at the charity's Bishopbridge House night shelter in William Kett Close had risen by a fifth from around 120 in 2012-13 to around 140 in 2013-14.

He pinned part of the blame on public sector cuts, which he claimed made it harder for homeless people to build a new life.

The system was under strain, he added, but the 30-bed shelter was currently coping with demand.

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And as temperatures continue to drop, charities across the city are ready to activate emergency measures and create extra bed space - battling to prevent deaths due to the cold.

Details are revealed as the Evening News looks at the issue of homelessness in a three-day series, showing the work that goes on to support people in need.

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'I think the problem [of homelessness] has got worse this year,' said Mr Player. 'We're experiencing more people on the street.

'There are new people coming to the streets all the time.'

Government figures show that the number of homeless people in Norfolk recorded as being in priority need has risen from 477 in 2012-13 to 574 in 2013-14.

While the picture was fragmented in different parts of the county, Mr Player said people would gravitate to where there was help for the homeless.

Asked why he felt the problem was worsening, he said: 'It's not necessarily to do with individuals facing difficulties and not overcoming them.

'It's to do with the system itself.'

He said that the way the system should work is that homeless people regain some stability in their life at a night shelter, and then progress to a private group home as a second placement - as a halfway house on the road back to independence.

But he said those next placements were becoming scarcer, so people could not progress beyond the night shelter, with a 'bulging pipeline' developing.

'We need to continue to operate our services at full stretch, as we don't have any control over the number of people who become homeless,' said Mr Player. 'We do try to prevent people from losing their tenancy, but homelessness is with us.

'It's part of our society, and we have to all try to provide services for people when they have nothing and nowhere else to go.'

And for people who work to support homeless people - including charities and officers at the city council - December is one of the busiest months of the year.

If there is a temperature of zero degrees celsius or lower forecast for at least three consecutive nights, emergency procedures are activated.

No homeless person will be turned away from a shelter, with extra bed space set up in areas such as kitchens on a temporary basis.

It is also a difficult time to be homeless due to the happy memories often associated with the festive season. Maria Pratt, manager of Bishopbridge House, said: 'We make a real effort here at Christmas, as a lot of people will be away from family.'

This includes games and activities designed to combat feelings of loneliness.

Bishopbridge House has 23 staff, has been open for a decade and saw its 2,000th service user this summer.

Ms Pratt said that the most common reasons for a person becoming homeless were having a relationship breakdown and losing a job.

She added that issues of substance abuse could compound homelessness, but it could be difficult to tell which came first.

Speaking about the work of staff at the shelter, she said: 'You're going to love it or hate it - you have to have a huge amount of empathy and compassion and work in a non-judgmental way.

'But it's hugely rewarding when you see people get their lives back.'

Mr Player said changes in social policy and the benefits regime, as well as a shortage of affordable housing for single people, were putting pressure on the margins.

But he said: 'There's no point moaning about the government.

'The solutions are here in the county. We have to find our own solutions.'

Immediate help is available for rough sleepers - to notify the city council to an issue, email or call 01603 212950.

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