Former Big Issue North vendor Garry Mackintosh has turned his life around and now works in the construction industry. His first step was Latch, which renovates empty houses for homeless people to rent
By Christian Lisseman
Garry Mackintosh and James Hartley sit on separate sofas in the front room of a rundown but solid three storey Victorian terrace in the Chapeltown area of Leeds. The room, like the rest of the house, has the eerie feeling of a place where someone has lived for a very long time: on the mantlepiece are two chocolate bunnies in silver wrapping that could have been there since last Easter, and a large, old television squats in the corner.
“Garry is one our greatest success stories,” says Hartley. “He’s a hero.”
“There’s lots to do on it,” says Hartley, chief executive of Leeds Action to Create Homes (Latch), looking around the room. The plan is for the charity to convert the five bedroomed property into three separate flats, the latest in the organisation’s redevelopments, and one of 16 projects made possible by a recent £1.2 million loan from Triodos Bank and a grant from Leeds City Council.
“Latch provides homes for homeless people, which we do by finding long term empty properties and bringing them back into use,” says Hartley. “And crucially we provide training and volunteering opportunities on the refurbs as well, which provides people with skills, experience and confidence.”
Mackintosh adds: “They don’t just slap a coat of paint on. They make them a home – places you are proud to live in.” And he should know. Not only did he once live in a Latch property, he helped to develop some of them.
Originally from Nairn, near Inverness, Mackintosh, 41, became homeless after a break-up with his partner and a difficult custody battle for his son. “It got all twisted and everything went against me, and it put me in a dark place. I ended up losing my son and then I lost everything – my job at the council, my house, everything.”
Mackintosh remained homeless for a few years, initially in Blackpool and then in Leeds, where he started selling Big Issue North in 2013. “I used it to try and focus myself and get myself back into a work situation,” he says. “It was something to keep me occupied during the day and get a few quid in my pocket, and at the same get me a bit of support.”
About a year after he’d started selling the magazine, encouraged by Big Issue North staff from the Leeds office, Mackintosh went along to see a house that Latch had just finished refurbishing as part of an open day. “I spoke to one of the workers and I ended up volunteering a couple of days a week on one of the refurbs,” he says. “Latch put me on a waiting list for one of the houses, which I got into pretty quickly. And they got me through my CSCS [Construction Skills Certification Scheme] card and then they employed me. And all this time they gave me the support I needed.”
That support ranged from training and housing, to more basic everyday things such as “making sure you got food, got electric”, says Mackintosh. “Every single member of staff is always happy to see you, always there to encourage you and inspire you to move yourself forward.
“Sometimes it’s just the little boosts – just little steps which turn into bigger steps and before you know it you are running. That’s what made a difference. That’s got me from where I was, which was on the streets, no idea where I was going or what I was doing, to now.”
And now is a long way from selling Big Issue North and living on the streets. Mackintosh has since moved into a private tenancy and works as a contractor for a Leeds firm specialising in building preservation. And, most importantly for him, he’s got his 14-year-old son back in his life, which he says wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the support he’d got from Latch. “Everything has turned around,” he says. “Now I take my son up to see my parents.”
“Garry is one our greatest success stories,” says Hartley. “He’s a hero. There are lots of challenges and serious issues with our clients and it isn’t a Hollywood movie. You can offer help and support and try to make a difference, but it doesn’t always work out. But Garry’s story keeps an old cynic like me going.”
Both Hartley and Mackintosh are aware of the growing homelessness crisis engulfing Leeds and other cities, and the number of local empty properties – more than 5,000, according to Leeds City Council – is an issue that frustrates Hartley. “We have 100, 150 people apply to us a year and we can help 15 to 20. But there is a massive amount of empty properties out there and it’s outrageous we can’t help more people.”
While Hartley recognises that Leeds Council leads the way in dealing with the issue, such as the 150 per cent council tax rate for properties empty for two years or more, he suggests more radical methods are needed. “We have to be prepared to take private assets and make them publicly available, because without that these people are just sat on them. These aren’t rich people who own these houses. There are many different stories as to why [properties stand empty]. It can be people who have inherited them, or people who fancied doing a bit of buy to let and then realised it’s more challenging than they think, and there’s a lot of negative equity about so people get stuck with these properties.”
Mackintosh agrees, while proposing an even more radical solution to tackle the rough sleeping crisis in the short term. “How about reintroducing squatters rights again? Maybe that will encourage more people to do more things with their properties.”
Ultimately the solution to tackling homelessness is building more houses, says Hartley. “Build more housing, more social housing, be innovative and creative with the land that is available, and stop just pumping out homes for wealthy people. I would borrow money and invest in social and council housing like it was the 1950s again. You need it on that scale really to make a significant change.”
But he recognises that political pressure to keep house prices buoyant means that that’s unlikely to happen. “At least we’re doing something in our own little way, trying to bring more properties into use.”
And both Hartley and Mackintosh agree that homelessness isn’t just about providing more roofs over people’s heads. “I work with homeless people myself now,” says Mackintosh, who volunteers with an outreach project on the weekends. “We’re finding that people are getting housed and then they are back on the street a few months later. You go from having no responsibilities to having lots and it’s a lot to take on without the kind of support that Latch are providing. It’s very difficult to keep those tenancies.”
Hartley agrees. “Homelessness is more than just an expression of a housing need,” he says, adding that while loans such as the one that is funding its current programme of redevelopment are welcome, without proper funding from local and national government to provide the support, things are tough.
“The only way support workers can do that work with people is if we have the money to pay their wages. We have to have enough resources so that we have staff who can stop what they are doing and have a chat with someone when they need it. With the cuts to the funding of support it’s hard. Contacts are shrinking. We’re funding support out of reserves.”
Latch’s future is far from secure and Hartley is concerned about proposed changes to legislation. “We’re not sure about rental revenues in the future because of the changes the government are proposing,” says Hartley. “We’re watching all the changes – direct payments to landlords, changes to Universal Credit, funding of the support in housing, shared room rate – all that jungle of stuff.
“We don’t know how it’s going to play out but in the worst case scenarios our rents could be cut right back to the local housing authority levels and there’s no funding to provide any services. Then we’d have to stop developing. We need proper recognition of the importance of support in supported housing, recognising that that’s essential to be done properly and not in some bodged-up way which is what the current government proposals are.”
“There are so many different reasons why someone becomes homeless, why they are in that situation,” adds Mackintosh. “These need to be looked at on a one-to-one basis. You have got to have people who care, not who just want to tick boxes – that’s what makes a big, big difference. Without these services homelessness is never going to get any better.”
Like the Big Issue North on Facebook
If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:
Download and subscribe to the Street News app today, for unlimited access to stories that raise the voices of marginalised communities around the world. Subscription is just £4.99 a month, and all income from subscriptions goes to Big Issue North Trust and helps vendors in the North of England to make positive changes to their lives.