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Gravesham Sanctuary plans to convert Gravesend property into 7-bed house of multiple occupation for the homeless

Plans have been drawn up to convert another town centre property into short-term accommodation for the homeless amid the impact of the cost of living crisis.

Gravesham Sanctuary, a Christian charity working to support rough sleepers in and around Gravesend, has submitted plans for a seven-bed house of multiple occupation (HMO).

The not-for-profit organisation has purchased a terraced property in the town centre which it aims to convert and run in conjunction with Gravesham council's existing 10-bed facility in Wrotham Road.

It will provide individual rooms for occupants, communal facilities, as well as staffing areas.

The aim is to provide a safe refuge for the homeless who it says need "dignity, stability and security" to get their lives back on track before moving into longer term accommodation.

The Sanctuary is still actively supporting people at its daytime base in Longferry Court which has seen "a very large increase" in people reliant on it.

It offers laundry facilities, showers, phone and internet services and activities such as therapeutic art, as well as a wide range of support services.

Homeless charity Gravesham Sanctuary has submitted plans for a seven-bed HMO in Gravesend. Photo: Gravesham council planning
Homeless charity Gravesham Sanctuary has submitted plans for a seven-bed HMO in Gravesend. Photo: Gravesham council planning
The property will have individual rooms for guests. Photo: Gravesham council planning
The property will have individual rooms for guests. Photo: Gravesham council planning
The existing kitchen space inside the property in Gravesend. Photo: Gravesham council planning
The existing kitchen space inside the property in Gravesend. Photo: Gravesham council planning

There can be anything up to 15 visits a day and in June alone there were 90 visits from 39 different individuals.

Over the past year, the facility has served 700 cooked meals, prevented 991 sleeps on the street and registered 50 people.

Volunteers also run a winter night shelter but the pandemic has changed the way in which it operates with a shift away from communal sleeping to providing single room accommodation.

The Sanctuary, which also works with the church's City Praise Centre foodbank, was the brainchild of senior pastor Tom Griffiths.

His son Sam Griffiths has now taken over the day-to-day running of the facility and believes there is a pressing need for more HMO-style accommodation.

The general manager told KentOnline: "We used to sleep people in a communal area and we could have 10-20 people in a room on campbeds, sleeping bags as a way of getting them off the streets during the winter.

A volunteer working at a kitchen facility for the Gravesham Sanctuary
A volunteer working at a kitchen facility for the Gravesham Sanctuary

"When Covid hit a couple of years ago, we actually moved away from the communal sleeping due to the governmental guidelines.

"We had a 10-bedroom house that we rented and this was with the aid of the council as well and we were able to put the people in individual bedrooms."

Not only did this prove effective in curbing the spread of the virus but volunteers also noted the impact on people's mental health and wellbeing.

Sam said: "It was hugely beneficial to people having their own space, their own security and having almost a sense of normal life again."

Moving forward, he says there is a general consensus among volunteers that they will not go back to communal sleeping.

"We've been very blessed, we have just been able to purchase a new property," he explained.

Gravesham Sanctuary has now shifted away from communal facilities
Gravesham Sanctuary has now shifted away from communal facilities

"It will hopefully be a seven-bedroom HMO. That will allow us to continue what we started in Covid, putting people in their own space and giving them a bit of dignity back."

Although the Sanctuary's night-time accommodation and kitchen has closed, the charity is still a first point of contact for many in crisis.

This was the case for a very distressed 19-year-old who phoned the facility a few weeks ago fearful that she would soon be out on the streets as the parent she lived with was moving into hospice care.

Lorna Nolan, who is the guest manager, was able to calm her and make an immediate homeless application to Gravesham council.

This meant that her situation could be dealt with quickly and she could avoid becoming homeless.

The stereotype of the homeless is also changing.

"We've found so many people who are maybe one to two decisions away from homelessness."

General manager Sam said: "We have had a huge number of different faces, different scenarios that have led people to homelessness.

"This year alone we've had 18 -19 all the way up to our oldest gentleman who is 74.

"We've found so many people who are maybe one to two decisions away from homelessness.

He added: "Sometimes it's people with very normal, very unassuming lives and all of a sudden over night they might be turned upside down and find themselves battling homelessness."

The charity worker says the cost of living crisis and rising rents are also taking their toll

"It has been horrendous for people, especially people who might be sitting near the line already," he said.

"A lot of people we've been having come into our day centre have just been struggling day-to-day with the whole pressures the world is throwing at them at the moment."

Sanctuary staff Lorna and Steve Nolan with, centre, pastor Tom Griffiths Picture: Steve Crispe
Sanctuary staff Lorna and Steve Nolan with, centre, pastor Tom Griffiths Picture: Steve Crispe

But the situation is not without hope and new approaches are being taken to tackle homeless.

Before the pandemic if you found yourself homeless you might find yourself being referred to one service for accommodation and another for food or finding work.

"You were just generally being sent all over the place," he added.

"The system wasn't really there before to help battle homelessness in the capacity we are facing now. "

But the volunteer says new partnerships formed, including the Rough Sleeper Initiative the Sanctuary is part of, are bringing services together "under one roof".

He added: "We have seen since Covid a greater response from councils to the homeless situation and Gravesham council have been really good, providing help with funding and also with their own house.

"It's really nice to see so many people working together in a really productive way to try to battle homeless now."

Subject to planning approval, the new seven-bed HMO will open later this year or early next. Click here to view and comment on the plans.

In the meantime the emotional and community support offered by staff and volunteers will remain vital.

"It's not just an ear, it's people getting to know them and wanting to know them," adds Sam.

He points to the inspirational stories of some of Sanctuary's regular volunteers who themselves were once homeless.

"To see the turnaround from someone's life battling homeless to now actually being the one to take someone under their wing and actually help get them to the same place when they came into our centre is remarkable."

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