The Julian House outreach team receive and respond to reports of rough sleepers in Exeter. One of the locations that the outreach team is aware of, and often called too, is near the local motorway, often used for people passing through or hitch-hiking.
Under a motorway, on a ledge, isn’t the location that springs to mind when you think of homelessness, however it had been brought to the team’s attention that this area was being used by a couple regularly as a place to sleep. To say the spot was difficult to access is an understatement. An extremely steep verge led the way up to the small concrete ledge, which the couple had been sleeping on, with a busy motorway only metres above. The noise from the vehicles overhead screamed and the toxic smell of fumes took over. This was not a healthy environment for anyone to live in, we had to do something.
As outreach workers we often put ourselves in dangerous situations, but this felt extreme. Despite the risks, we scaled the verge with trepidation and made our way up to the ledge. The chance of accidentally hurting ourselves seemed likely and we struggled to comprehend how the couple had been able to function here. They had no phones, no contact with other agencies and no support. I realised how inaccessible the spot was and that our clients had chosen it for this very reason.
Unforeseen circumstances had led to the woman having lost her tenancy and she felt isolated from her friends and family. Her partner struggled with his mental health, previously finding himself in trouble with the police but not willing to engage with the doctor. They were dubious of any services we could offer and kept a sceptical approach during our first meeting. This location had been their bed for six months and would often spend most of their daytime there too.
I was concerned with the risks that the ledge presented logistically but we needed a solution about engaging them whilst safeguarding ourselves. A compromise was made and the couple agreed to meet us at the motorway services which were nearby. On an open, grassed area we met with them, hot drinks in hand, ready to begin the delicate process of engaging them in our services.
We continued to meet with them in the same spot regularly for about four weeks. Each time I brought a hot drink and a smile, and they slowly began to warm to our team, allowing us to gain their trust incrementally. The major turning point was when I was able to take them to the council offices to see what could be offering in terms of housing and support. This meeting went really well – the couple came away having secured temporary accommodation.
The team supported their move and enjoyed seeing as they thrived in this environment. It wasn’t long before they decided to begin the search for their own, more permanent accommodation. The outreach team were on hand to help and the couple successfully navigated the council housing services, finding a flat they could call their own.
Having a settled home allowed the woman to reconnect with the family she had once felt isolated from and begin to rebuild those precious connections. We were absolutely thrilled when she told us that she was soon to be a grandmother, as this was something she would never have imagined six months ago.
The hard work that went into helping this couple really pays off when they pop in to say hello to us at the office. The difference we can see in them, physically and emotionally, is incredible. They are still flourishing together in their flat and that’d the best reward our team could ask for.