Hayley's on mission to secure a better deal for homeless
Published on: 06 Oct 2017
A MUM of four is waging a war against Bristol's homelessness and the red tape she says is hindering men and women getting the support they need.
Hayley Jennings, 34, has volunteered with various homelessness charities for the past five years after witnessing her father living rough on the streets.
Left frustrated by rules and regulations which she sees as hindering getting effective help to the people who need it most, she has decided to take direct action.
For the past few months, Hayley and a group of volunteers have been spending Saturday evenings travelling around Broadmead, the Bear Pit and the city centre handing out food, tents, sleeping bags, blankets and toiletries.
The volunteers are all members of a Facebook group called Help Homeless Bristol which Hayley recently set up. She has been staggered to see its membership rise to more than 2,500 in a matter of weeks.
"I didn't realise the group was going to take off as well it has and everyone has been fantastic.
"As an individual, I don't have to adhere to any red tape. People who are members of the group give donations such as food and clothes and these will go directly to the homeless. Members can also post shout outs for sleeping bags, tents and food when they see homeless people, which means the items go directly to the people who need them.
"Someone posted that they saw a homeless guy with a dog by the Bristol Post building. My friend and I drove down there that evening and luckily he was still in the same place. We gave him a blanket, a tent and some food. He was so grateful.
"Some of the volunteers may have felt quite scared to speak to a homeless person but by coming out and engaging with them, they realise they are human with stories to tell."
Hayley has been inundated with items, which she has been keeping at her Kingswood home.
"Recently we put together 30 care packs with items that had been donated by two women who own a gym. They each contained a new pair of socks, toothpaste and brush, shower gel and sanitary towels. We also made up 40 bags, each with a cereal bar, chocolate bars, biscuits and crisps as well as making up 50 sandwiches. We also went out with flasks of hot water to make hot chocolate, tea, coffee, instant soups and pastas."
Hayley's appeal has been boosted after her friend and Slimming World consultant Kate Hale put the word out at the classes she runs at Hanham Community Centre. Members have now been arriving at class laden with items such as blankets, sleeping bags, coats, socks, pants, hats, scarves and gloves.
Hayley said: "There are other charities providing food and toiletries but it's very much line up, take your ticket and go. You can't be under the influence of alcohol when you attend but obviously a lot of people on the streets have got alcohol and drug addictions, which means they can't get help."
Hayley said a typical Saturday evening would involve directly helping dozens of people sleeping rough on the streets of Bristol.
"One Saturday we arrived in town at about 8pm and left at 11.30pm and during that time we engaged with 60 people. We saw people with no blankets and no sleeping bags. They were shivering, looking half dead. I met a girl on the streets who was just 18 so she was highly vulnerable. She was just wandering around town because she had nowhere to live."
Since 2012 Hayley has been volunteering with various homelessness charities, her work including mentoring and helping sex street workers who have drug and alcohol addictions.
Hayley said: "My dad is an alcoholic but has been in recovery for five years. At one point he was living in Newport in cardboard boxes and was eating out of bins. He stayed with me several times over the years and sometimes he'd come home covered in blood or I'd find him lying on my doorstop drunk. I'd take him to AA and hospital appointments but he'd go back drinking.
"He contracted hepatitis C and was told if he didn't stop drinking he would be dead within a year. Luckily he then stopped drinking, went through his hep C treatment and hasn't had a drink for five years."
Largely spurred on by what happened to her father, she is also motivated by what she describes as a system which is "set up to fail", saying high rents and changes to the benefits system is making it much easier for people to find themselves on the streets.
"It's not difficult for someone to become homeless. If you're sharing the rent with someone and your relationship breaks down it can be difficult to afford to rent on your own.
"There are also lots of people who are unable to work through mental health issues. The benefit system has been slashed and they can't afford the top up of their rent.
"It's a vicious circle with people going off into rehab or prison and then being thrown back into the hostels in town where they could meet drug users. The system doesn't offer enough intense support for someone to try to turn their life around. The whole system is set up to fail. More focus should be on prevention rather than cure."
Hayley claims the government's new and controversial Universal Credit - where people who are out of work or on low incomes are given money directly rather than it going to a landlord - will also lead to an increase in homelessness.
"If you don't pay your rent you can be thrown out and the council will not be obliged to house you again. Why is the government giving money to a drug addict to pay their rent? It makes no sense."
Hayley knows she is just scratching the surface of Bristol's homeless problem. Longer term solutions are needed to make a bigger impact on the scourge of homelessness.
"A hostel that is completely free from alcohol and drugs would be good. I've met people who have found themselves out on the street but they don't want to stay with people who are on alcohol and drugs. I imagine that would be quite daunting and could lead to people being coerced. Then you've got an even bigger problem.
"There's only one women-only hostel in Bristol and that only has 12 beds and is open just four days a week. What are the women doing for the other three days?
"What would also be good is to have somewhere in Bristol that homeless people can use to store things. They have to lug sleeping bags and blankets around with them all day because if they leave them anywhere, they'll be gone by the time they've returned."
Hayley said homelessness is an even bigger problem in the UK than statistics suggest.
"A homeless officer told me the government does a national check of how many people are homeless each year and unless they are sat in the street, they aren't counted as homeless - not even if they are sat in a shop doorway. If I give out a tent, then that person is no longer classed as being homeless. The homeless figures are much, much worse than we are led to believe."
A Just Giving page has recently been set up to fund a large shed to store donations, special high performance sleeping bags, flasks, insulated food bags and hi-vis jackets for volunteers. Visit the Facebook group helphomelessbristol to find out more about donating and volunteering.