WHILE the coronavirus pandemic has caused disruption to lives across the globe - here in Taunton, one community has been given the hope and help they’ve needed.

At the beginning of the crisis, it was announced that Somerset West and Taunton Council would be offering the option for all rough sleepers in the community to move into accommodation.

The Canonsgrove site, owned by Bridgwater and Taunton College, was chosen and now houses 47 of the town’s most vulnerable people in a partnership scheme, managed by the YMCA Dulverton Group.

Somerset County Gazette:

IN USE: The buildings weren’t being utilised before the pandemic

In a huge team effort, the site was prepared and opened within four days, with a boost of £18,700 in government funding as well as other payments and grants.

The council put out feelers for a number of places, and were delighted when the college responded with their offer.

The college had been considering what to do with its Trull-based student accommodation, as it has been under-utilised due to its out-of-town location, so was equally keen to help when the opportunity arose.

Eve Watt, head of student services at the college, has taken on the challenge of coordinating some aspects of the scheme, a part of her job she never imagined happening.

“It’s ex-student accommodation, so we have been able to open it up for really vulnerable members of society to quarantine during the Covid crisis,” she said.

“It feels fantastic to be able to help.

“It wasn’t something that would have crossed my mind had the council not reached out, and actually it has worked really well for us, and for the community.

“Seeing the change it has made to peoples’ lives has been fantastic, it’s brought a lump to my throat hearing from them.

“We are not just an education provider, we want to make sure that we are supporting the wider community as well, and I think this is a really good way of doing that.

“We are really keen to see what else can happen.”

Somerset County Gazette:

ON SITE: Some of the blocks at Canonsgrove

The project is being run by the YMCA Dulverton Group, which also runs the Beach Hotel in Minehead where vulnerable people are also being supported.

The site is more suitable for social distancing measures, with lots of open spaces, and has an isolation wing if anyone develops coronavirus symptoms, but they have not had any cases so far.

There is capacity for 68 residents, and currently 47 people are receiving support here. Every rough sleeper in the district has been offered the accommodation, or even to camp on the site, however the team recognise there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution and not everyone wants to engage in this type of service.

The residents have come straight from the streets and from other hostels and supported housing projects, to a place where they can get more suitable care if they have particular health issues which would make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.

John Shipley, housing operations manager for YMCADG, said: “We are really encouraging social distancing and we have support workers on site to help address whatever issues they might have, and to look at their future housing options.

“They each have their own bedroom and ensuite bathroom.

“It couldn’t be going better. Already, I saw a lot of them when they moved in, and physically they were a mess, and a lot of them psychologically, too.

“They’ve been here six-eight weeks, and already so many of them are looking a lot better, and they are doing the one thing that homeless people don’t do very often, which is that they are looking to the future.

“They are talking about what they might want to do next.

“Everyday is a dream.”

As well as providing three meals a day, there are support workers on site that will go over every aspect of their lives, from mental health, employment, or drug and alcohol issues.

Phone sessions take place with Somerset Drugs and Alcohol Service (SDAS), and Somerset Partnership NHS mental health services come on site throughout the week.

Charities such as Open Door, Raft, and the Salvation Army have helped to provide a lot of the food, equipment and bedding needed, and the local church in Trull has also stepped up to help provide food.

Mr Shipley added: “It’s been a massive team effort.

“For me, it really shows that when you do stuff in a partnership, and the partners trust each other, and have the will to make things work, it can make an enormous difference, and it is much more likely to be sustainable.

“We would love to continue to be involved, whatever shape or form that is in the future.

“At the moment it is difficult to say, but there are conversations taking place.

“Firstly, we are really good at it, and secondly, we love it. It gives us a buzz everyday.

“These services weren’t non-existent to the rough sleepers before, but they were harder to access.

“As austerity has bitten in the last five-10 years, an awful lot of statutory services have had funding reductions.

“Here, because we have 47 residents all in one place, there are economies of scale that make sense.”

While nothing is set in stone at the moment, there is hope that the scheme can keep running in one way or another, in order to not reverse the progress that has been made.

The council is also in a good position, as other local authorities in the country have chosen to house rough sleepers in hotels, which could not turn into a permanent solution.

But the obvious question here is, surely the people in charge cannot just send vulnerable people back to the streets?

Mr Shipley added: “It’s going to be very difficult without ongoing central government funding. It’s not a cheap project to run, just in terms of providing the number of staff needed to keep things safe and to give residents the support that they need.

“But in the long run, it actually saves money. If you look at the amount of money that gets spent by the police, the council, by A&E departments, when you add all of that up, all the research that has ever been done shows that every pound that you spend on direct services for homeless people, saves the public £9. But the trouble is it saves that £9 over a period of time, and sometimes it is difficult when people are wanting to make cuts, because they want to cut things that have an immediate effect.

“I think it is affordable, and I think it is essential, but it is a big ask.”

Councillor Chris Booth, the executive member for community on SWT, said this project has been the greatest thing he’s seen during his time on the council.

He said: “We’ve got to give the political will to this project, and we want to give the staff the resource and support they need to make this thrive.

“I came here for the first time at the end of May, and it was a sort of open-mouth moment. It’s so beautiful, the residents seem to be happy, and I just lose the words to describe it because it is so incredible.

“The residents want it, the staff want it, the partners all want it.

“Certainly, politically, at the council, we want it.

“Now it’s the case of making sure we get the funds.

“I can’t think of anyone who would be against what is going on here.

“It’s strange how it came about, but in the bizarre circumstances the stars aligned.

“It’s been a learning curve, but looking around here, you can barely contain the smiles.”

The council’s rough sleeper coordinator, Jerry Davis, is also on hand to help out the residents.

He says his role has moved from one based in enforcement, to focus more on engagement, and hopes the rough sleepers have forgiven him for actions taken in the past.

He said: “If I could have a magic wand, this would be very similar to what I would have wanted.”

Mr Davis said he is proud of the progress that has been made by the residents since the site opened.

Some of the residents, who admit to having drug dependency issues and criminal pasts, are now feeling hope they can have a future.

Gary Horton said: “Nothing has worked for me in the past. It’s been a revolving door. I’ve been a prolific offender.

“But here, everyone is looking healthier, getting on better.

“I hope this place can stay open.”

David Brown said: “Since being here, I am clean.

“I’ve been on and off drugs since 2000.

“Being here does help being further away from the town centre. I don’t think anyone wants to go back.

“We have support here to move on, when we are ready.”

Paul Pasztak said: “I’ve been in Taunton for 10 years, for the last three years I’ve been using services like Lindley House.

“For 16 years I have done heroin nearly everyday, but not being here.

“Here, you get a key worker who really cares. I haven’t had this kind of support for the last few years.

“We feel like we don’t deserve all this, but it is good to see they are really trying to help us.”

Well-known criminal Wesley Keirle is also making fantastic progress, having gained weight and limited his drug use during his stay at Canonsgrove.

Mr Keirle said: “Since being here, the amount of drugs I used to do in a day is what I’ve done in the last three months.

“This place is working.”