Earlier this month, I was fortunate enough to accompany the High Sheriff of West Sussex, Neil Hart DL, on a visit to Crawley Open House to gain some perspective into the current homelessness scene in Crawley.
Tucked away in a corner in Three Bridges, Crawley Open House truly is an incredible institution. Founded by three women in 1982 (albeit in a different location then), Crawley Open House first began providing emergency accommodation during the winter of 1990. Being unable to bear seeing rough sleepers struggling in the harsh winter nights, Crawley Open House launched their permanent hostel on Christmas Eve 1994. They transformed Portakabins (initially used to house construction workers) into twelve single and four double rooms, with an office, shower and laundry block. Fast-forward to 2021, Crawley Open House now houses a spectacular 26 people (although two beds have been decommissioned due to Covid-19). They are also currently in the process of renovating a storage facility into a skills workshop, which will allow the homeless to gain valuable skills for the workplace – such as doing woodwork or those of a barista.
Ian Wilkins, Crawley Open House’s manager, took us on a tour of the hostel. He told us stories of the people who’d been with them, the eye-opening history of Crawley Open House and about the times it fell into financial hardship.
We were taken to see the Day Centre (which unfortunately is mostly closed due to Covid-19): an area for people to gather and use the hostel’s facilities, even if you aren’t currently boarding there. For example, the hostel offers showers, laundry facilities, and computers with Internet access for all to come and use. Visitors and residents can buy a meal for £1 (meals are provided regardless of whether one can afford it) which is made possible by donations from the community. The Day Centre sees all sorts of people come to use its facilities, from people who had never set foot in the hostel before to people that have been coming there regularly for over twelve years.
If I had to choose my favourite part of the hostel, it would, without a doubt, be the Day Centre. It has a welcoming feel to it, with volunteers bustling in and out and a TV playing quietly in the background. It has a huge bookshelf, most of which I assume were community donations, and a dining table boasting a wide range of sweet treats and snacks – including chocolate croissants, who could resist?
During the car ride to the hostel, it was fair to say I was a little anxious: harsh stigmas and stereotypes of the homeless had gotten into my head and were eating at me. But, as soon as I set foot on the premises, I knew that my prejudices were far from true. While I stood outside the hostel’s doors, chatting with Ian, I was able to take in the relaxed and homely ambience of the hostel: there, you could hear the laughs of the hostel residents playing table tennis in the Day Centre behind us and their dog napping in the sunlight beside them. Every hostel resident we came across was polite, saying ‘Hi’ to everyone they saw and engaging in small-talk.
Seeing them all enjoying the summer weather reminded me that homeless people are people – like the rest of us. I think it is easy to fall into the trap that homeless people are stand-offish and hostile, unwilling to accept help from anyone. Although, in reality, 99 times out of 100, that is far from the truth.
The cruel reality of homelessness hit me when Ian told us the most common reason for their residents becoming homeless was marriage breakdowns. He told us the story of a man they once housed who began drinking (as a coping mechanism) after his marriage ended, leading to a vicious cycle of losing contact with his children, his job, and eventually, his home. No one wants to believe that their comfortable lives could so suddenly turn bitter, but it is the truth – and all the more reason that we should be more compassionate and open to new ideas, before jumping to conclusions.
Written by Alisha Mafaas, Secretary of the West Sussex Youth Cabinet.
*Note: We had all tested negative for Covid-19 prior to the visit, hence why we didn’t maintain a 1-metre distance.