When they spoke about the Hub

Bringing together healthcare, police, probation, a bank, Big Issue North, and others, a unique project is helping people get off the streets and stay there

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It’s Tuesday lunchtime and Wayne Brown is handing over a plate of food to PC Warren Yates from the kitchen serving hatch in Manchester’s Mustard Tree centre, which provides support and services to homeless people and others facing financial hardship. As Brown talks about the services he’s accessed at the centre, he gives Yates a cheeky smile and says: “You’re the one that arrested me!”

“We encourage people to sell the magazine because it’s a good alternative to begging.”

Brown, a former Big Issue North vendor, first came to the Mustard Tree via the Street Engagement Hub, which is operated by Manchester’s city centre neighbourhood policing team and a range of providers. He’s had various run-ins with the police in the past and spent time inside for selling drugs. Originally from the Isle of Man, Brown, now 56, started using drugs when he was 12 years old. “It’s all I’ve known,” he says.

These days, Brown says he holds no “animosity” towards Yates or the other officers who work at the Hub.

“They’re doing their job and I was doing what I was doing,” he says. “There’s no hate between us. If it wasn’t for Warren, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Yates encountered Brown while he was sleeping rough and begging in Manchester city centre and he persuaded him to give the Hub a try. Yates is one of four officers who make up the Street Engagement team and was involved in setting up the service.

The people they work with, Yates explains, are involved in a range of “street-based activities”, which might be rough sleeping, begging or using drugs, for example, and they often have a range of complex needs such as addiction, childhood trauma and mental ill-health. The Hub was set up to keep those people out of the criminal justice system by encouraging, and in some cases compelling them to access services and support.

“Research a couple of years ago revealed a fifth of all city centre arrests were people from the street community,” says Yates. “We wanted to find out about those people, what their needs are and get them the help they need. We used to arrest a lot of people for begging, and we learnt a lot. It was a revolving door based on old legislation that needs modernising.”

Once through the doors of the Hub, clients have access to services including first aid, housing and accommodation support, a same-day prescribing service with an onsite doctor, probation services, a mobile branch of the Co-operative bank where people can set up bank accounts, and Big Issue North, where people can get temporarily badged up to sell the magazine on a trial basis, with the hope that they will go on to be vendors.

“We encourage people to sell the magazine because it’s a good alternative to begging,” says Yates. “When people are begging they are at an all-time low. It’s dehumanising and begging becomes an addiction, a way of life for people. Being able to sell the Big Issue North is important because people are standing up to sell, they have to wear a bib, abide by some rules and they are working.”

Wayne Brown
Wayne Brown

It is, however, a challenge to persuade people to sign up to sell the magazines or stick with it, admits Yates. “It’s so easy to beg and to make money.”

Manchester’s affluence and the friendliness of its people, along with the services on offer in the city, draw people to its streets to beg, he says, pointing out that some people will travel into the city from accommodation in other areas to make money on the streets.

“Just because someone is sat down with a sleeping bag doesn’t mean they are homeless,” he says. “We do still arrest some people for begging. Not many – only the ones who we’ve tried everything else with.”

These days, rather than getting people into the courts and prison, Yates’s hope is to compel them to come to the Hub and seek support. He mentions one man who was in that morning who had been frequently begging at traffic lights on the city’s busy inner ring road, putting himself and drivers in danger.

“We’ve been trying to get him here for weeks,” he says, pleased that the man has finally turned up to seek support.

Yates is particularly excited about probation’s involvement in the Hub, meaning that people at risk of breaching probation can make contact with the service to avoid another custodial sentence. And the prescribing service for medicines such as methadone and Subutex are also vital, he says, as this can make a massive difference to someone wanting to move away from using street drugs. “This speeds up the process from what might be a three week wait to getting it all sorted in a day or two.”

Yates is passionate about the project. “It gives people a chance. It’s very forward thinking and I love being involved with it.”

He’s also pleased that the service now operates from the Mustard Tree, a well-established service in the city offering low-cost food, clothing and household essentials, as well as training and volunteering opportunities.

Brown himself, having attended the Hub, went on to join the Mustard Tree’s Freedom Project, which offers people the chance to learn new skills and find work. He now has certificates in, among other things, hygiene, food handling and preparation, and now volunteers in the Mustard Tree kitchen two days a week. He’s off the drugs and is living with his nephew and “staying away from idiots”.

When he first accessed the Hub, Brown tried his hand at selling Big Issue North again, which he’d last done many years ago. Unfortunately, he is currently banned from parts of the city centre, due to past behaviour, which meant finding a pitch was difficult. This is a barrier that Yates is hoping to help overturn by having the ban revoked.

“In the past, police weren’t interested in helping you,” says Brown. “They were just interested in locking you up. Coming here to the Hub and the Mustard Tree has helped me a hell of a lot.

“Now I can get up in the morning and the first thing on my mind isn’t where am I getting money from – it’s what am I going to be doing today to occupy me. I wish I had done it a long time ago.”

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