Homeless hub gets nod despite emotional safety pleas
PUBLISHED: 08:10 11 October 2019 | UPDATED: 08:10 11 October 2019
A controversial homelessness hub has been given the go-ahead despite emotional pleas from residents and churchgoers for councillors to oppose the plans.
Members of a Greek Orthodox Church and residents of retirement properties filled the benches in the council chamber as the planning committee debated whether to approve city homelessness charity St Martin's Housing Trust's application to create a 16-bed assessment centre on Recorder Road.
And the scheme, which was previously delayed following a paperwork blunder and confusion over land ownership, was eventually voted through by all but four councillors - despite one member describing the outcome as "the hardest planning decision I've ever had to make".
The application by St Martin's was prompted by a government grant for more than £400,000 as part of a national approach to tackling homelessness, and was supported by cabinet member Kevin Maguire, who is responsible for the city council's rough sleeping strategy.
Labour councillor Mr Maguire said: "People come onto the streets for all sorts of reasons, but once on the streets we see a catastrophic collapse of their humanity.
"They need protecting rather than banishing. For many, this hub will be a life-saving first step."
But at the planning committee earlier today (Thursday, October 10), councillors were met with more than a dozen objections to the plans from neighbours living in sheltered housing and members of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Mother of God, situated immediately next door to the office building set to be converted into the hub.
Retirement community resident Jean Lovell said: "With some frail, vulnerable and dementia sufferers among us we shall be too scared to venture out to get shopping, making us prisoners in our own homes.
"The thought of this application going ahead is terrifying. Surely it is a human right to live without fear?"
Case officer Katherine Brumpton said: "It's not a long term hostel - it's a place where people would go to on referral to spend a maximum of 72 hours."
Constantina Theodos said the location of the hub would leave families and the elderly "fearful" of attending their church.
And Anthea Barry, who told the committee she had been a member of the Orthodox Church community in Norwich since 1981, said: "An important element of our observation is to proceed around the church - this will be blocked.
"There are always open doors during services. We were informed the scheme will be used by those who have mental health problems and drug addictions.
"I would be extremely fearful and worried about my personal safety.
"I feel each time I go to my church would be stressful."
And she wept as she told the committee: "We only wish to be able to practice our faith in continued quiet contemplation at our place of worship.
"I would be afraid to call the police for fear I would be a marked woman.
"I would not be able to find solace in the church that I love."
And former police superintendent David Gunton told the committee he believed the in order to fulfil the requirements of the grant, the project would bring "the country's most difficult cases" of homelessness to Norwich.
"This scheme results in crime, violence and disorder," he claimed.
But St Martin's worker Dan Gethin, who became employed by the charity after battling his own drug addiction and sleeping rough, told the committee the service had saved his life.
He said: "I would like to thank St Martin's without whom I wouldn't be the person I am today and would probably be dead. "St Martin's took me in and helped me and I'm coming up to four years clean.
"I have never been happier."
And he added: "I have never ever experienced drug dealers visiting hostels to drop off drugs.
"Drug addicts don't make good drug dealers."
And Dr Jan Sheldon, chief executive of the charity, added: "Homeless people are not scum. They're decent, vulnerable people who may have made some poor choices.
"Sleeping on the streets is tough and in 2019 we should all be deeply ashamed.
"For St Martin's this is a good location.
"The people who are in need of our services are not scum.
"This service could save lives."
She also emphasised that Norwich police, who had previously raised concerns about the potential for drug trafficking linked to the site, had said they were reassured by St Martin's reputation as a key part of the homeless services sector in the city, and highlighted the charity's zero tolerance approach.
Councillors are questioned planning officers over the proposal - with queries over fire escape, kitchen and toilet provision all being raised, as well the issue of the church's provisional rights over the land - but ultimately deemed the proposal acceptable, to shouts of "disgrace" and: "Shame on you for putting us at risk."
Labour councillor Roger Ryan told the committee: "I urge everyone here to open their hearts to the homeless because they do need our help.
"We can't put our heads in the sand."
And Green councillor Nigel Utton said: "I walk down Prince of Wales Road and see the homeless people there and I have immense sympathy for them."
But he urged to look at nearby sites on Prince of Wales Road and said he couldn't support the plans.
While Green councillor Sandra Bogelein said: "This is possibly the hardest planning decision I've ever had to make.
"I don't want to be making a decision against the principle of this provision - I'm 150pc for that."
The scheme was approved by the committee, with Mr Utton, Paul Neale, Mike Sands and Ms Bogelein voting against the plans.