Community Self-build Agency

Posted by editor 26/09/2013 1 Comment 4468 views

Angell Eco Self-Build project on which the Agency advised

By Jenny McBain //

How the Community Self-build Agency is helping the homeless to create their own homes

John Gillespie has the same mantra as Big Issue editor-in-chief John Bird.  He too believes that people need ‘a hand up not a hand out’.  The former social worker has worked for the Community Self Build Agency for 15 years and throughout that time he has overseen projects which have seen homeless people learn new skills and gain a new place to live in the process.

He says, “The whole idea is to involve people in solutions to their housing situation.  So they receive training in construction and then put that training into practise in a real life site and the flats and houses that they work in become the houses they live in.”

Once funding has been identified, potential self builders are approached.  John says, “We will work with a group of people for approximately a two year period, right from the formation of an idea through the whole gambit to where they make a commitment.  Then we help them to cope with that commitment and help them to learn or regain the ability to work in a team and give peer support.”

A recent success story has just been realised in Bristol.  Ten ex-service personnel have built a series of two-bedroom flats – one for each participant.  Unfortunately new housing benefit rules could jeopardise their ability to keep tenancies going, even though there are strong family reasons – such as having their children to stay – for needing an extra room.

John feels strongly that self-building schemes should receive ongoing funding and that there should be help in place to support people in new tenancies.  He says, “There are people out there who are willing to become involved in becoming part of the solution of their housing problem and everyone has the right to be able to find that.”

The organisation works with a wide range of clients, from people who are on the street to sofa surfers and those who are in unsuitable or overcrowded housing. People who have been rough sleeping present particular challenges. John says, “After a few months of living in the streets they lose confidence and their streetwise tendencies come to the fore.  Soon, everything becomes a heavy round of the same things over and over again.  Just getting food and clothing takes over. And all too often it is about getting drugs and alcohol to get through the night.  In these cases people need to get a grip on their lives again.”

The community self-building approach to solving homelessness, has a number of positive spin offs. Many participants on these schemes find themselves equipped with skills which make them employable and there are some heartening success stories.

One young person, who had been thrown out of home and had been staying at the houses of various friends, took part in a self-build project in Northampton.  During this time, he picked up some carpentry skills and got a manual job with Network Rail before progressing to a management position.  A group of women became electricians and one 53-year-old woman got so much out of taking part in the project that she became a life coach and went on the board of a housing association.

But what are the rewards for those whose job it is to organise community self-building projects?  John says, “I am made for my job and it is made for me. It is great to watch peoples’ faces when something positive happens in their lives.  And it is good to see people when they are in their new home and you know that they can open their front door and welcome you in or choose to shut you out.  When I go back to projects which took place 15 years ago they usually welcome me with open arms.  People even ask me to their weddings and christenings.”

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