Imagine for a moment that you lost your job, a secure employment that you’ve been working in comfortably for years. Then your partner leaves you, a family member dies, your rent takes a hike, your home needs a major repair or your car breaks down, maybe all of them – life is not always kind. It’s uncomfortable to imagine, but it’s immensely stressful to deal with if it actually happens. Where would you turn? What would you do to keep food in your belly, clothes on your back and those of the people who rely on you? How would you manage to keep a roof over your head and pay your bills while you looked for alternative employment?

The recommended safety-net

It has been estimated that if every household in the UK had £1,000 in savings it would reduce the number of people falling into problem debt by half a million. Some experts recommend that every person should have an emergency savings fund that’s enough to cover at least six months’ worth of bills. Surveys have found that roughly 40% of UK adults have less than £500 in savings and some estimates say that around 28% of UK adults have no savings whatsoever, clearly showing that the reality for many is far from the ideal.

Limited options for 2,267 households in the South West

So, back to the initial imaginings, with no job, a partner or loved one gone and some big bills to cover, it would be fair to say you would be in a high-stress situation. Being evicted from your home becomes a sharp reality, visiting the Foodbank, or charities like ours to be fed are a few of the limited options available to stay alive.

The security we build around ourselves is fragile, and even more so for people in precarious work situations, those on zero hour contracts, people with anxiety, depression or illness. It’s a grim picture that was the unfortunate reality for the 2,267 households in the South West who made applications in the last quarter of 2016 to their local authorities for help with homelessness, 51% of those were deemed ‘intentionally homeless’, ‘not in priority need’ or simply ‘not homeless’ and left to find another way to remain off the streets of our cities and towns.

A simple lack of housing

Those who did get accepted would have been graded on their need. But according to Phil Noall, Housing Manager for our Freedom Housing project, ‘There are far more people seeking council and housing association homes in Devon than there are homes available. Even if you are assessed as having a high priority for housing it may take you a long time to find a council or housing association home.’ That’s where emergency accommodation comes in – families being accommodated in one bedroom of a B&B, or hostels with shared facilities.

Building stress

You can easily imagine the stress and anxiety that each person in this type of situation goes through; the pressure that would keep building and the impact that it would have on your friendships, family ties, physical and mental health, the ability to even look for work and the outlook you have for your future.

The complexity of the application systems for people in these situations can be a tipping point in terms of their ability to deal with the situation they have found themselves in. Navigating the emergency housing applications, negotiating payment plans when you have no income, signing on to receive some sort of income support while you look for work and meeting the benefit requirements that often require internet access to various portals for seeking work, can be confusing at best and increase pressure and anxiety to the point where mental health problems arise at worst. Self-confidence and belief plummet, physical health slides as you’re unable to take proper care of yourself and your loved ones, acing an interview and getting a job, any job, can come to be seen as an insurmountable mountain you have to climb. And so the spiral swings you down further.

Now that you’re there feeling that you are at the bottom of everyone’s ‘To Do List’, it’s hard to get out of your situation. Your previous life, job and security seem a lifetime away – like it happened to someone else, or it was a dream. Where do you go now? Who is going to care about you when, if only you had’ve had ample savings, you could have stopped all this happening in the first place?

Freedom cares

So, you eventually arrive at our Day Centre and sign in, wondering what you are letting yourself in for. But, you’re pleasantly surprised. The lady at reception takes a few basic details and introduces you to the Day Centre team who offer you a hot drink. The hall is light and airy, the seating arrangement of the meal area is reminiscent of a café. Over a cuppa, you get to chat about what brought you to us, what you want to get out of it (your sanity and your old life back, a secure home and a job) and how they can help you with that journey. You’re dignity and pride are handed back intact at that first conversation.

After a comfortable chat with our Day Centre staff, you find out that they can assist you with updating your CV, and you can do it right there that afternoon if you like. You’re invited back to use the computers for your job searching, and if you’re a little unsure of how to go about it, well there’s someone to help you with that too. You mention the mail that you have been afraid to open since your savings ran out and an appointment to go through it all is made so you can deal with it.

Resources to get your life back

All within this light and airy building you find the resources you need to get your life back on track and staff that are helping you to do just that. You’re not being sent from pillar to post anymore just to deal with one issue; you can get to grips with everything in one place and rely on the advice being given to you about it as these people have dealt with situations just like yours literally thousands of times. What’s more, they are genuinely interested in helping you move forward.

This scenario and many like it, are what our Day Centre volunteers and staff help people through on a daily basis – regardless of their background or housing need assessment. Most people come to us because they hear about the free meal service, something that despite their pride and feelings of dignity, they swallow as they face the reality of what needs to be done to simply stay alive. And when they come in they find that we provide so much more than just a square meal.

Help based on experience

All the help provided at our Day Centre is based on the experience gained over more than ten years of helping people in similar or worse situations to that described above. Simple yet insightful interventions designed not just to stop people slipping further into despair and vulnerability, but help them climb back out from that dark place. By providing practical support such as the free meal service , resources for people find work or manage debt and facilities that allow people to build social connections like the TV room, internet café and gym give vulnerable people who are under immense pressure a little breathing space and the support needed to make the right steps to turn their lives around.

By visiting our Day Centre, people who are in desperate situations are able to spend more of their time working their way out of that situation and back to secure lives; and less time walking between government agencies where the computer says ‘No’, that they need a referral before speaking with someone, or simply hiding from the reality they have found themselves in.

The results of the service provided to the North Devon community – without question or complicated form filling – speak for themselves, the testimonials and stories from the people who made those steps speak volumes more about how simple understanding coupled with effective advice and resources can change someone’s world. Between 2006 and 2015 almost 140,000 instances of support were provided that made a difference and helped someone towards a secure and happy life. Already, this year we have had over 4,200 visits from people needing the same, and that number is only set to grow as the risk of falling into poverty rises despite employment and the number of hours worked across the UK being the highest they have ever been since 1975.

We all need someone to care

The compounding effects of disaster striking your life can happen to anyone. No-one is immune to disaster, we all need someone to care and sometimes we need a hand to help ourselves up. In situations like the one I just asked you to imagine, the climb back can seem even further than the ‘slide down’. The effort and self-discipline taken to make those changes are certainly character building, but I doubt that many people would choose to build character through experiencing poverty, deprivation and extreme hardship. Would you?

Help more people find brighter futures here.