Yesterday Brighton Housing Trust celebrated the 50th anniversary of its founding. Over 300 guests – tenants and clients, members of staff (past and present), Board members, supporters and partners – joined us for a celebration.
The Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex, Peter Field, along with the Mayor of Brighton and Hove, Cllr. Dee Simson, and BHT’s Life President, Patricia Norman, were our special guests. Peter Field is, we believe, the last surviving founder of BHT. This is the text of the speech he gave at our anniversary celebrations:
“Madam Mayor, Distinguished Guests
Next month we commemorate 100 years since the cessation of the first world war. A war to end all wars they were told – except it wasn’t. Millions died, and many more have died in conflicts since.
It is right that we honour those who gave their lives for freedom, but it also vitally important that we keep working for peace, that we stop the killing and try to develop harmony, and a more equal society.
Sometimes I think about homelessness as a war. Andy in his podcast last week asked me, if I were prime minister and Monarch all rolled into one, what single thing could I do to stop homelessness and I thought – that’s a bit like asking what single thing could I do to stop wars.
I answered truthfully that I don’t think there is ONE thing that can be done – for either.
50 years ago, when we developed BHT there were probably no more than 20 people actually sleeping rough. They were mostly ‘Gentlemen of the road’ who used to move on a circuit around the country. We had no women.
The Government had a series of Reception Centres, in Brighton called ‘the spike’ part of the old workhouse which became Brighton General Hospital in Elm Grove. It was run by the notorious Captain (Stan) Philips. It had 30-40 beds as far as I can recall. Men used to queue from 4.00pm to get in, those that didn’t slept rough and we picked them up on the soup run. Most of the men on the circuit didn’t like to go there anyway because of the regime. You’d get a bowl of soupy type stew, a large chunk of bread, and in the morning you had to do some menial task like sweeping etc.
We had some hostel accommodation in the town through Brighton YMCA at the Old Steine.
Many street homeless were ex service personnel – usually with a drink problem (there were no real drug issues then) or they had mental health problems, which meant they couldn’t adapt to civilian life. Remember a lot were teenagers in the second world war and would have seen some terrible things and were suffering from what we now call PTSD.
If you listen to the podcast you will hear how I became involved about 50 years ago. There were a lot of characters who we saw on the soup run quite a few who we didn’t see again for a month or two. We used to make the soup, first in someone’s house then in the Dorset Gardens Methodist Church, and take it to the same place under the arches in Madeira terraces close to the Pier. It wasn’t obvious but those that wanted it knew where to go. Almost from the start it became clear that we were attracting single people who were lonely, often living in inadequate housing on little or no income. They would turn up – sometimes just to chat.
Sadly, things didn’t get better, they got worse. I can’t remember when we supported our first street homeless woman but over the years the complexity and the numbers just got worse.
I have never had any social work skills, but I said to the original volunteers and trustees I do have some property skills and I think I can help build a base of facilities and housing to help out. And that’s how I, along with the likes of David Blake-Standing, Irene Parry, Penny Christian and Pat Norman helped establish what has become the pre-eminent service for homelessness in the City.
There are so many people who have lent a hand and helped over the years. I stood back to help other homeless and housing activities probably some 20 – 25 years ago, but BHT has grown and supported so many, and fought to provide vital services for the disadvantaged, that I want to say a massive thank you to all past stakeholders and all of you here who have done so much.
Andy seems to have been with BHT forever. I remember interviewing him for his first appointment – can’t remember when or what that position was Andy, but it was many years ago – so that shows you how long he has stayed committed. Others, but he in particular, have steered this organisation through good and difficult times, but he and all of those past and present staff, trustees and volunteers over the last 50 years have never lost sight of the objective – to support the most vulnerable in society, recognising how quickly you can become single homeless and anonymous and, if at all possible help them gain self respect and the wherewithal to get housed and a way to re-enter society.
I and the local community are, and will remain, deeply indebted to you for your commitment and the work that you do.
It is clear homelessness and the issues facing clients of BHT are not going away any time soon.
As Her Majesty’s Lord Lieutenant I am required to welcome all of our new citizens into citizenship of the United Kingdom and Her Majesty asks me to remind them of their responsibility to become involved in our community and society. Some of these new citizens have had an easy route. Maybe coming via, say, Australia having married a partner here. But some have had a really tough route through asylum from a war-torn country or repressive government. By whatever route they came, they are now part of our community and part of our society and we welcome them with open arms as they will play their part in the diversity and richness that is the United Kingdom.
However, for years our society has been fragmenting. I lay no blame, but for years successive governments have taken away front-end community support and laid great stock on the individual. In effect this has encouraged isolation which means the breakdown of community and caring.
I urge all new citizens to volunteer, to get involved, because this is a great way of making friends and helping us all help others – developing a real community where we help each other and maybe avoid the breakdown that has gone on for many years.
100 years ago, the war to end all wars came to an end. But we still have wars.
50 years ago, all of those volunteers who formed BHT thought homelessness could be sorted in a few years. Sadly, today it looks as far away as ever.
I told Andy that I thought the answer to homelessness was a jigsaw. Until we address all of the pieces that make up the problem you will not be able to close down BHT. We need to address social housing, but we need to address private housing to let as well, we need to address drug and alcohol addiction. We need to support those with mental health problems and most of all we need to develop support networks through community and family work.
We need all of this – if we get these components working well then, hopefully, we will do away with the need for agencies such as BHT and have a real celebration, but until then I ask you to carry on the magnificent work that you do. Provide that immediate help – that help that any compassionate person would give, and please can I ask everyone here to keep giving your support, and encourage your friends and family to give Andy and his team all the support and help that you can.
If we build back strong community links and help BHT and others provide the services clearly needed we might just turn the corner.