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House of Mercy charity to close three hostels for homeless people in Gravesend and Northfleet

Residents in three hostels for the homeless have spoken of their despair after learning they may soon be back on the streets.

The House of Mercy, a charity that’s been helping homeless people in Gravesend for 31 years is to fold after running out of cash.

Soon to be homeless - Asif Seenzai
Soon to be homeless - Asif Seenzai

The closure will potentially make 20 people homeless and many of them say Gravesham council is not doing enough to help.

Asif Seenzai is only 24. He was found a place in the charity’s Mary Anne Doyle shelter in Seymour Road, Northfleet, a year ago by social services.

Now, like the charity’s 19 other tenants, he has been told he has to move out by Friday (September 29).

Mr Seenzai is the only tenant with a job – he works part-time in a pizza shop. He said: “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve got nowhere to go.

“I’ve spoken to the council’s housing department, but they just say I have to go and find my own landlord.

The House of Mercy hostel in Edwin Street, Gravesend
The House of Mercy hostel in Edwin Street, Gravesend

“How can I do that? They all want a deposit, so that’s not going to happen.

“Before I came here, I was sofa-surfing with friends, but I’m not sure I can do that again.”

Desperate though his situation seems, Mr Seenzai is arguably better able to cope than some of his fellow hostel residents, many of whom suffer poor mental or physical health and are unable to work.

Lamin Bojang, 51, a former security guard, suffered a mental breakdown after splitting up with his wife. He is on medication and unable to work. He said: “We’re all going through a lot.

“I was homeless before for two years and ended up sleeping in the park.

Some of the residents at Mary Anne Doyle House who are shortly to be made homeless
Some of the residents at Mary Anne Doyle House who are shortly to be made homeless

”When you are down, you find out who your friends are.

“Now my family won’t even have anything to do with me.

”My support worker here at the hostel has been trying to find me somewhere to go, but the council just says I have to look for somewhere myself.

“It’s all too much. If they don’t have a place for us, surely the council could buy this place and let us all stay on?

“I feel sorry for the staff too because they are all going to lose their jobs.”

Mary Anne Doyle House in Seymour Road, Nothfleet
Mary Anne Doyle House in Seymour Road, Nothfleet

The House of Mercy, which runs two homeless hostels in Gravesend and another in Northfleet, is to cease operations on the last day of the month.

The 20 residents have been told they need to find somewhere else to stay by Friday and have been advised to contact the council for help.

Two have already found offers of alternative housing.

The House of Mercy’s head office and first hostel is in Edwin Street, Gravesend, where there is accommodation for six residents and a drop-in day centre.

The charity was established by the Sisters of Mercy and the Presentation Brothers with the aim of providing temporary accommodation to single homeless people for up to six months, along with assistance in obtaining benefits, medical attention, work training and finding suitable long-term accommodation.

McAuley House in Albion Road, Gravesend
McAuley House in Albion Road, Gravesend

It later acquired a second ‘move-on’ hostel, McAuley House, in Albion Road, providing self-catering accommodation for four residents.

The third hostel is Mary Ann Doyle House in Northfleet, which opened in 2014. Created from the former Rising Sun pub, it could house 12 residents. All have been under-used of late.

The House of Mercy operated a strict code that tenants needed to observe, including no alcohol or drugs.

Tony Rogers is a resident at Mary Anne Doyle House.

He said: “It’s impossible for us to find our own accommodation because we are all on benefits and just don’t have the money for the deposit which landlords demand.

Cllr Peter Scollard, the then Mayor of Gravesham, visited the hostel at Christmas. Lamin Bojang is on the right of the picture
Cllr Peter Scollard, the then Mayor of Gravesham, visited the hostel at Christmas. Lamin Bojang is on the right of the picture

“The mayor came here at Christmas. It was a nice photo opportunity. But when it comes down to it, the council doesn’t want to help.

“Several of us have been to the council offices in person, but they won’t see us, only speak to us over a telephone, and then they only say they can’t help.”

Another resident, who asked not to be named, suffers from mental health issues including severe anxiety.

He finds it difficult to even leave his room. He has been assessed by telephone for emergency housing, but has not heard whether he will be granted it.

He said: “It’s just adding to the pressure. I feel left behind.”

The former Edmund Rice House in Pelham Road, Gravesend
The former Edmund Rice House in Pelham Road, Gravesend

In a statement, the House of Mercy trustees said: “We find there is no prospect of our finding sufficient funds to continue to operate.

“Increased provision has been made for the homeless by Gravesham Borough Council and by others, reducing demand for our services.

“We have decided to close the charity in an orderly manner, giving sufficient notice to clients, staff and Gravesham Borough Council so that other arrangements may be made.

“We regret that finding new accommodation is more difficult for some of our clients, who have not reached a high priority level on the Gravesham Borough Council’s housing list.”

“We have offered to help them find accommodation.

“Funding for charities such as ours changed some years ago, resulting in a significant diminution in our regular income.

”Covid-19 brought other challenges, including reduced numbers of clients seeking our help.

“In addition, more one-person accommodation has at last been created by Gravesham Borough Council, reducing the length of time clients have stayed with the charity, and so further reducing income.”

The trustees said: “Every effort has been made to find other sources of funding and we have also reduced our running costs, but there is no further scope for such reductions without putting our clients, staff and estate at risk.”

The last accounts submitted to the Charity Commission at the end of March, 2022, showed an annual income of £394,091, but expenditure of £417,379, with reserves of only £74,733 – equivalent to only two months’ trading.

Gravesham council has been criticised for not immediately housing the charity's residents
Gravesham council has been criticised for not immediately housing the charity's residents

At its peak, the charity opened a fourth hostel, Edmund Rice House in Pelham Road in 2019. It could accommodate 13 tenants, but that already closed in 2022.

Michael Donovan, the vice-chairman of trustees, said: “The charity has achieved its objectives and has run its course.”

The Edwin Street property is owned by the Roman Catholic Church, and was leased to the charity for a peppercorn rent.

It will be returned to its owners.

"So many landlords refuse DSS tenants..."

The other three hostels were purchased, adapted and equipped by the Sisters of Mercy, a separate charity, and will be returned to them.

The two larger hostels have already attracted interest from potential purchasers with a view to turning them into Houses of Multiple Occupation (HMOs), but that would require a new grant of planning permission since their current permission is limited to charitable use.

There has been no interest in McAuley House to date.

The charity employs eight staff, some part-time. All have been served redundancy notices.

Cllr Jenny Wallace, Gravesham’s cabinet member for housing services, said: "Over many years the House of Mercy has provided a valued and vital service for those in need in Gravesham. Its closure is a huge blow for those living there.”

Cabinet member Cllr Jenny Wallace: We are doing what we can
Cabinet member Cllr Jenny Wallace: We are doing what we can

"We are meeting with all affected to develop personal housing plans for tenants to ensure they have a safe place to live, and we will continue to work with them as they adapt to the change in their circumstances.

"The scale of the homeless crisis nationwide is such that local councils cannot work alone to help those who find themselves at risk, and our successful Rough Sleeping Partnership is proof of this.

"It is only through partnership working with other agencies and charities that we can hope to make inroads into the issue.

"At the same time, we here in Gravesham are putting measures in place to try to relieve the demands, and officers are in contact with Department for Levelling Up, Communities and Housing to explore if there’s any government funding available to assist those displaced as a result of the closure.

"We have our own premises just outside the town centre providing a home and support for a number of clients, and with developers Hill Group we are working on plans for pod-style homes as next step accommodation for those ready to live a more independent but still supported life.

"But there is not a one-size fits all solution for those who need our help, which is why we will continue to work to support those facing having to move on from the House of Mercy."

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