Every Monday and Wednesday morning, the Depaul UK office in Middlesbrough becomes a drop-in-centre to those in the town experiencing homelessness. When I arrive, several men have been waiting outside and the office soon grows busy as the morning progresses. They brew coffee and make toast. Some choose peanut butter, others chocolate spread. A man in a Middlesbrough jersey watches a documentary on Pompeii. Another plays music on his phone. Peter, one of the volunteers, has supplied freshly baked cookies, which quickly disappear. 

What is clear is that everyone is welcome, regardless of age or circumstances. Many who attend have substance abuse issues, some have struggles with their mental health, others just need advice. All of them are there because they know they’ll be supported. As well as our staff and volunteers, there are also members of the local council and other community organisations on hand to provide further support and guidance. 

There’s a reason the drop-in shelter is so busy. Middlesbrough is the fifth most deprived area in the UK. Forty percent of children live in poverty and recent statistics show that homelessness has risen by 200 percent in the last year. Martin Picken, who manages the team in Middlesbrough, believes the true increase could be as high as 400 percent. 

An ethos of ‘everyone is welcome’ is fundamental to the centre’s success. A lot of the those attending are considered to be high-risk, meaning they have addictions or have a criminal record, but they keep returning, and engaging, because they feel accepted and included, rather than segregated. Inspired by Vincentian values, the Depaul UK team concentrate on working non-judgementally with that risk rather than rejecting it. By providing a calm, relaxed and open atmosphere, they can build the trust necessary to begin helping individuals along the pathway and potentially to move away from homelessness. 

One young visitor to the drop-in-centre is Daryl, who has recently moved into a Depaul UK flat, which are prioritised for high-risk individuals who are determined to get back into everyday life. Personable, polite and honest, Daryl looks a decade younger than his 32 years. He still gets asked for ID if he wants to buy a can of Red Bull. Despite presenting with drug addiction and mental health struggles, Daryl wasn’t deemed a high priority for housing by the council. With nowhere else to go, he spent time living rough on the streets and in hostels. Like many in his position, he turned to drugs to cope, which only made things worse. 

Thankfully, Daryl’s luck turned around when he started using the drop-in-centre and met Martin, who saw how motivated he was to change his life. Martin acted quickly to secure a flat where he would receive wrap-around support for his problems.  

Depaul UK, with funding from the Department for Levelling Up, has been able to secure funding for 14 flats in the local area, away from the distractions and risks of the city centre. The flats are prioritised for high-risk individuals like Daryl, who with the right support could make a full recovery. 

Daryl couldn’t believe it when he heard he’d got the flat. “It’s like wow. It won’t be easy but I’m not going back to that life. I’ve had enough of all that. I’ve just got to keep moving forward.” 

Poppy, a support worker and recovering addict who uses the centre to meet others with addiction problems, supported Daryl to reduce his daily drug use by half. It’s this dedication and willingness to engage that set Daryl up for his new flat. 

“To get a flat off Martin,” says Poppy, “Martin wanted him to engage with us. Daryl has done that brilliantly. I’ve been able to feed that back to Martin, and now he’s been given that flat. I believe that guy will go far from drug use. I believe he’ll change his life.” 

Poppy, who works for Recovery Solutions, sees the chance to mix with clients at the centre as key to helping those with addiction problems, an increasingly urgent issue for Middlesbrough where synthetic opioids like fentanyl and nitazenes, many times stronger than heroin, are being used to lace street drugs, causing users to overdose more often. 

“Martin helps me mix in with the people that I’m looking for in a safe environment for them. So, they’re not feeling embarrassed about talking to me. And I mean, me being a recovering addict, that helps build the relationship because they know me, they know where I’m from. They know I don’t judge them.” 

“I believe in third, fourth, fifth, seventh chances for people. They need some love and some compassion, and they need that hand-holding situation. And it’s about taking a risk with someone. If you go and find someone five days out the week, they’re gonna start thinking you actually care, because you’re the only person that might care about that person.” 

Not everyone’s pathway out of homelessness will look the same as Daryl’s, with a flat of their own waiting at the end of it. Some simply aren’t ready to live independently, whilst others might have different goals.  

For Mark, resuming his career was his primary aim. After being made redundant from a job he loved, he was denied benefits and spent several months living on the streets before he started visiting the drop-in-centre and things began to turn around. 

Peter, cookie baker and a former criminal defence lawyer who now volunteers at the drop-in shelter, helped put him in touch with his local MP, who was able to help get Mark his benefits. Not long later, Mark was invited to an interview in London for a job. Without the money to pay for the coach and hotel, though, Mark faced missing out on a life-changing opportunity. 

It’s testament to the friendly and inclusive environment all the staff in Middlesbrough have created that a group of fellow rough sleepers banded together to raise the funds for Mark’s trip. Their faith in Mark paid off. He got the job and is now continuing the career he loves. 

“Sometimes it’s quite overwhelming the numbers that come in,” says Martin. “But that tells me that we are doing something right cause people want to come here for help. They wanna come here to chat. They wanna come here to feel some inclusion. They wanna come here because they’re accepted.”