Embassy co-founder, Sid Williams, writes on the charity’s journey to date.
I had been concerned about the fact that people sleep on our streets since I was 18 years old. I was in church one day and saw a vision as clear as watching TV of people God wanted me to give my life to serve. This had nothing to do with my own plans to become a graphic designer! I felt God call me to Manchester and so I left home and at 19 moved into a particularly challenged estate in the North of the city. I spent the next 9 years engaged in running youth clubs, fostering teens to keep families together and volunteering with charities supporting the homeless in Manchester City centre.
I ran a social enterprise which took young men out of illegal activities and into the construction sector and found that companies had an appetite for this kind of work. Importantly it was successful in turning lives around and young men who had been selling drugs and living with mum were now paying their own rent and working full time. We even took 6 of these young men and built a school in Africa. Around this time I chose to live on nothing and trust that God would bring money from somewhere. I did this for 2 years and never had to ask anyone for money or draw any benefits. I was therefore able to give all my time to supporting the families of the men I was working with but also to experiment with my time.
One of the things that sticks in my memory was a decision to have a go at sleeping rough in the city centre with some homeless chaps I had got to know. It was cold and the ground was hard and dirty and I didn’t actually sleep at all. My housemate and I had several homeless chaps live with us (not overlapped with any fostering of course) and we learned a fair bit about the causes of homelessness this way.
It wasn’t until 2017 that My wife Tess and I filed to register a charity. There was an interim 6 years when, having got married, we lived in Stockport and I worked for Christian youth work charity The Message Trust. Here I took on a tired old bus which had been converted into a youth centre on wheels. I began taking it out and using it to plant new youth projects in Manchester and Liverpool and training local people in the 5% most deprived communities so that when the bus moved on, they could continue their youth work. This proved a successful model. By the time I left there was a fleet of buses in 5 cities. We worked with the police and churches and notably crime rates dropped in every project we undertook. In Anfield in Liverpool, crime dropped to zero compared to a usual 20 call outs per night whenever the bus was present but more impressively, Police in Merseybank in south Manchester recorded a lasting 50% reduction in all crime long after the bus had gone. There I met Laighton and his wife Heather who planted a church and community cafe off the back of the time with the bus. Laighton has this incredible ability to come alongside troubled adults. He had assisted many people out of addiction, ran a community café, food bank and the church. His own story is an incredible beacon of hope for anyone struggling with addiction or poverty.
When I left the Message Trust, I knew how to train people to drive a bus and a fair bit about how organisations are structured. Tess and I pulled together a board of trustees and embarked on a vision of converting a band tour bus into a shelter. Credit where due – the idea was not mine but that of my best friend Alex who had long toured Europe with his band. My aunt and uncle gave us the money to buy a bus and in the first instance we were missold an illegal vehicle costing us £18,000. It was a hard way to start the charity! We had £7,000 left. We then found one for sale at £30,000. We raised some more money but were still £17,000 short. We felt certain that God had put the vision on our hearts and that he would provide. I then met with Andy Burnham who liked the vision. At that time A Bed Every Night funding had not been launched and there was a desperate need for shelters. I conducted a 2 month research period and found just 54 beds for 350 rough sleepers. Andy asked me to meet with Tim Heatley of Capital and Centric. Tim had just become the chair of the Mayor’s charity. Tim met with me and later confessed that he came with a firm ‘no’ in mind as he thought the coach idea was bonkers. Thankfully I didn’t realise this and presented while feeling very little pressure! After hearing the story and the vision, Tim wrote a cheque for £17,000 from Capital & Centric’s own money. We found some incredibly positive and encouraging partners in Barnabus, Coffee4Craig and Manchester City Mission. Manchester City Mission were so generous, I still find it utterly remarkable. They allowed us to park on their land, use their electricity and water and showers and toilets and even cooked for us 7 days per week. They refused to take any payment. I don’t think we could have started without them. Later I’m pleased to say that we found ways to assist in return with their costs, the food and laundry.
We began with a huge leap of faith. I left my job and Tess was not working at that point. I also employed 3 other people – each of them 4 days per week. It was all done on faith because we had very few supporters in the early days! Somehow it worked and after a 3 month training period in shelter management (and I had to also train 3 people to drive an HGV!) we launched the shelter on the 8 th of January 2019.
The bus had been chosen for its luxury. When it arrived at Stagecoach, who kindly stored and serviced it initially, the driver told us all the bands he had taken on tour in it. The list included Cold Play, Tiny Tempah and Snow Patrol. The vehicle had 14 private beds with memory foam mattresses and proper bedding. We later reduced this to 12 beds and introduced a wall of 12 personal safes. There was a dining area with 8 seats around 2 tables, a toilet, a lounge that seated 10 with all the latest gaming and cinema equipment and a great little kitchenette. The hold was substantial and there was a cab with bed for staff. Looking back, those were amazing times. We only actually ran the bus for 14 months before covid ended all dorm style shelters. In that time 130 men passed through the bus. Many came for a night before finding relatives or for a week while waiting for a place at a rehab etc. But some stayed with us longer and they felt like family. We used to play sports in the car park, went out for meals, drove to Lytham St Annes to spend tome at the beach and even went camping for the weekend.
People were becoming homeless for an astonishing range of reasons. I was struck by how few of the homeless were addicts. We never met anyone who had chosen to become homeless and none of the 130 men the bus served had been begging. It broke those stereotypes for me. We found that about 60% of our men had lost their homes because of family breakdowns. In the mix were engineers, and accountant, students and also young lads from deprived Manchester estates and people straight out of hospital, the armed forces and prison. It was a broad mix. We found about 40% of the men were from overseas and had come to the UK in search of employment but had not been successful. Language barriers and even illiteracy were a huge challenge. We delivered over 5000 nights off the street for people over those 14 months. In all our time, we never had a single violent incident at the bus. That’s not to say there weren’t daunting moments. We had one chap that had been trafficked by a gang and the gang tracked him down to the bus and paid us a visit. Thankfully they were too nervous of our CCTV and our link to the local police to do anything other than threaten the young man in our care. We were able to work with the Police to move him on to a safe house.
One of the stories which stuck out for me the most was a 30 year old man who had lost his engineering job because of a Brexit related contract loss. He came back from Europe unconcerned because he felt he was very employable and was about to begin paternity anyway. The couple had been given a 1% chance of conceiving and yet, here they were with a baby. The child died at 12 days old and the couple couldn’t cope with the bereavement which lead them to split up. The man in question was overwhelmed. 4 weeks earlier he had a job, a baby arriving, his partner and a home, now he had his friend’s sofa. In that context he made some poor choices around alcohol and eventually his friend kicked him out and he ended up on the streets before coming to us. Bereavement was a surprisingly common theme. We had men who were carers for parents or friends who’s then died and then realised they weren’t named on the rental contract and weren’t working as they had been carers so were evicted.
We were also appalled to see soldiers coming back from service with PTSD discharges and ending up homeless very quickly. Notably, many of them had fled various forms of abuse at home to join the army at 17 because it felt like the only way out. After seeing difficult things in the military, many crumbled and were discharged with no further support.
As an organisation, we realised within a matter of weeks that we couldn’t just be a shelter. We had hoped that local authorities and larger established charities would resettle the men we were looking after but it became abundantly clear that most councils didn’t even employ resettlement workers and we could only identify 3 resentment workers at Manchester charities. Each had a caseload of about 12 people but by spring of 2019 therw was a good 400 people in need of one. We couldn’t afford this but we changed Laighton’s role to full time resettlement and backfilled his role with a new staff member. We were now a team of 5. We had a further 60 volunteers who mostly came from churches in Greater Manchester. One came from Crewe every time! These volunteers stayed overnight with out team – every day of the year.
Laighton and I observed that many shelters conducted no resettlement and left their residents to search for council housing unsupported. This meant that we met people who’d spent years in shelters bidding on local authority accommodation. Across much of Greater Manchester the story was the same. We decided to network with businesses. I found few charities were doing this. I went to at lease one business networking meeting per week for 2 and a half years, even before the bus was purchased! We now have 13 large companies who employ our chaps full time. We got to the point by the autumn of 2019 where near enough everyone on the bus was in either full time employment or in college. Men were calm, positive and most of the time got on well. We saw 39 men move from street to next accommodation by the time Covid closed the bus. Notably only 2 went on to council accommodation. In both cases, disability is what got them through the door.
Still to date, no able bodied men have made it into council accommodation and we’ve now helped 45 men make the move from street to next accommodation. This highlights the lack of local authority housing and also the effectiveness of employment and resettlement staff. Laighton was finding the sympathetic landlords, buying people phones, helping them set up bills and tax, getting furniture for people, and seeing people once a week for up to 6 months after they left us. 75% of the men we got into work stayed there of a year or more. It was working. Tim Heatley and I talked regularly about how we could be innovative with Embassy. The bus was working to a point but we felt that if we could become a provider of housing, then we could eventually cut out the need for the shelter stage. Tim spoke with James Whittaker at Peel Holdings. James offered us an incredible plot of land near St Georges Island right near the city centre. It was perfect. It almost had a moat because of how it was nearly an island, surrounded by waterways. We began to imagine what it could look like. James asked me to draw up my dream scenario. Perhaps my brief graphic design training would be useful after all! Then covid hit. Covid closed the bus. We managed to lease a property quickly from a private landlord and shifted the men we had there, meaning none went to the street. We were so quick that we were already in and lease signed before the government opened hotels to replace shelters. It It was costing Embassy a fair whack each month but looking back it was the best thing that could have happened. If we had waited a couple more days, we would have probably ended as a charity. Other shelters, bigger than us did and let their staff go. It means that as and when the government does end its ‘Everyone In’ scheme, there won’t be as many shelters ready to pick up the pieces. It has been an interesting time.
The government had previously only counted 4,000 homeless people but now 37,000 people were tipped out of shelters and into the scheme. The government gained its figure by asking councils to go out on one evening in the late autumn each year and counting the number of rough sleepers. Only 25% of councils actually get around to doing it. The homeless only get counted if they are lying down at the time. So if they are clearly homeless but sat up or standing, they don’t get counted. My experience of sleeping rough was that most homeless people try to grab some sleep in the morning when they feel safer and more people are around. This explains why the figure was 9 times too low and why so little budget was being spent on the issue.
Moving to housing was good. Initially it was not affordable but incredibly we received money towards the rent from all sorts of places including people who we had no connection to who had heard about us through unlikely links. The man now had a bedroom door each which was good for isolating but also for dignity. They didn’t need to wonder around in the daytime and because we had a kitchen we were able to begin to teach the men to cook and shop on a budget. Over time we ditched the initial house and now have two shared houses in Bolton and Salford. It’s been a time to re-invent the charity and practice for the village. We have grown the team and are about to begin a couple of homes for women.
Each resident now rents with us. This way we end their homelessness on day 1. No more shelters. We have housed a chap who spent 7 years going from shelter to shelter and never made it to the top of the council housing list. We now interview people before they come to the program. This is great because we can find the ones who really want to get on top of their lives and who want to work. We have a real range of ability. One chap with us now found himself a job within a week of arriving but at the other end of the scale, one is illiterate even in his native Arabic and is trying to learn English. We currently have all but 2 either in work or just about to start a job. We are beginning to see jobs open up to the men again as lock down eases and we’ve even secured two jobs in the past week for men who have left us but lost work because of lockdown. We love working with local companies in
One of our men was walking 30 minutes to work and yesterday evening they surprised him with the gift of a brand new bike to head home on! He was made up! I think everyone wants to be part of good news and to use their companies to make a difference. Churches, companied and individuals have also rallied around the Village. An incredible array of 15 companies have come together to help us create the plans for an entire village of 40 homes, sports facility, gardens and a village hall which will offer us offices, training kitchen, classroom, laundry and church. The design, engineering, architectural and planning team have put in a combined £250,000 of pro-bono work to get us this far. The police have done their work free of charge too. 12 of the 40 homes are pledged so far and the village hall also has a sponsor. Construction companies are also piling in with offers to help build the village. It is truly remarkable how generous the city can be. Peel have offered us a 125 year lease with the first 10 being rent free. I wonder how many of these organisations have had a homeless person sleep in their doorway?
Our plans for the village have now been approved by Manchester City Council after receiving positive feedback from the local community and councillors through the public consultation and developing good relationships with the residents’ associations. The Embassy Village won’t be a shelter or a substance rehab centre. The village is rented accommodation with tailored training and support and a limited stay time during which residents will use it is a springboard to move on to independent living elsewhere in Greater Manchester. The end goal for the majority of residents will be to see them living in private sector rental accommodation and not reliant upon benefits. This has got to be good for the individual, the pressure on council housing and wider society budget.
As we move towards getting spades in the ground to deliver Embassy Village, I’m looking to find sponsors for the homes on the site. This is an incredibly tangible thing to grant funds for. It’s a one off payment that will continue to support people for many years to come. Thus far we have pledges from a combination of companies and individuals to cover the cost of 12 of the 40 homes and also the village hall. Logos of the companies granting these one off gifts will remain on the homes permanently. Many of the same companies are joining our corporate partners team with the vision of becoming employers of somebody from the future village. Other companies cannot budget for a home but are offering materials and services as gifts in kind for both the construction and ongoing operation of the site.
I would love to hear from anyone who’d like to support us with sponsorship of a home or anything else above. We are keen to find sponsors for aspects of the landscaping, the sports area etc.