Sarah’s life was turned upside down at gunpoint. Now she’s rebuilding it with help from Housing First. Discover how it changes lives.
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Framework’s Building Better Futures campaign to develop 200 units of accommodation over the next five years will support people with the greatest and most complex needs based on the principles of Housing First.
This is the story of Sarah (name changed to protect her identity) whose life was turned upside down at gunpoint and is now successfully rebuilding it with the help of the Housing First pilot run by Opportunity Nottingham – the Lottery-funded service managed by Framework for people with multiple and complex needs.
Sarah was in and out of prison and hostels and rough sleeping for over 14 years. She has struggled with substance misuse, crack and heroin throughout this time.
Life turned upside down at gunpoint
Sarah’s life was turned upside down when her home was invaded at gunpoint while her young daughter slept upstairs. Unfortunately one of the perpetrators was someone with whom she went to school and when the police became involved it was thought that Sarah was complicit in their scheme to supply drugs.
Sarah then had a legal battle to keep custody of her child and prove that she was a good mother. She won this battle and was told she wouldn’t be moved from her property and had to continue living there, however she was too frightened to return to home, fearing for her own life and that of her daughter.
Sarah had a good job working for a multinational sports, health and leisure club. One day while cleaning out a locker she found a bank card that had been left behind. In a moment of fear and clouded judgement Sarah took the bank card and checked into a hotel for a night with her daughter to get away from her property. However the relief and safety that she felt overwhelmed her and she began repeatedly to take bank cards from the lockers at the leisure club and live out of hotels.
The first prison sentence
Sarah was caught and sentenced for fraud and her daughter went to live with Sarah’s mum. Sarah has described being stripped of her motherhood, of her identity, of losing everything. On release Sarah was no longer Sarah. She developed a new identity of “homeless person”, “prisoner” and “criminal”; she was no longer a daughter but a “shame” to her family.
Sarah ended up living in a homeless hostel with people who were also struggling with trauma and using substances to cope. Sarah fell into the same pattern. This led her to becoming a prolific shoplifter to support her substance use and to continue blocking out the trauma.
Over the years Sarah rotated through prison, hostels and rough sleeping. Her behaviour become increasingly complex and challenging as she tried to deal with her situation. She experienced abuse and bullying in the prison and hostels and often recounted a time that she had scissors held against her throat in prison and, when in a hostel, being assaulted by other residents. Sarah was often evicted from hostels for increasingly violent and challenging behaviour as she tried to deal with her situation. She struggled with destructive coping mechanisms and was surrounded by bullying and negative acquaintances. Her mental health being came worse and worse.
Sarah was often recalled to prison for missing appointments with probation, which she struggled to keep track of, particularly when she was sleeping rough and was dealing with other difficulties in her life.
Referral to Opportunity Nottingham
Sarah became known to Opportunity Nottingham in 2014 when she presented at the office. It took many years of support and a variety of workers for Sarah to engage fully with the support offered. Sarah really struggled to remember appointments and was quite terrible at time keeping. She was supported to re-apply for benefits tens of times, due to missed appointments or recall to prison. She was supported to access and make numerous appointments with health professionals for her physical and mental health. She was also supported to access and attend appointments with substance misuse services and, repeatedly, to get her methadone prescription back in place, after missing pick up too many times.
Her engagement with workers was poor, often interrupted by substance use, and it was hard to keep in contact with her. Despite buying her numerous phones, Sarah struggled to keep them safe, dry or charged while living on the streets. She would continually shoplift to survive, or sex work if needed. Sarah has often described assaults due to the vulnerability of being a female rough sleeper.
When in prison Sarah would normally be in custody for around three months, do 12 weeks’ time and then be in the community for around three months before shoplifting or being recalled due to missed appointments. Every prison sentence for Sarah involved another trip to Housing Aid on release and a new benefits claim. Sarah was profoundly demoralised and didn’t appear to want to try to make progress when everything would be reset by the next, inevitable, prison sentence.
In spring 2019 Sarah was released from prison and Opportunity Nottingham had to take the inevitable walk up to Housing Aid. All the way there Sarah cried with despair. She likened the walk to walking to the gallows: she had done this walk too many times and asked what was the point as she would only end up in a hostel, using drugs, getting evicted, trying to survive, and then go back to prison. She said she felt helpless and pointless in the world.
Sarah struggled to engage with Housing Aid and she had her support from them discharged. She ended up sofa surfing at someone’s property. There were considerable concerns around her physical and mental health in this situation. There were concerns about occasions when she was not allowed out or allowed to see her workers, and about the abuse she was suffering, and what she was being asked to do in exchange for staying there and having somewhere “safe” to sleep.
Throughout all her time working with Opportunity Nottingham Sarah would often express an unbearable need to have a “nest”. She used to repeat that she wanted “a nest to rest in”. She would continually asked her worker for a home to clean and cook in – somewhere where her family could visit her.
Sarah was offered a Housing First property in October 2019 however she continued to sofa surf and was convinced she would lose the new property, or get a warning or eviction letter, just like at the hostels: if she didn’t move in she couldn’t do something wrong to lose it. It took three months for Sarah to move into the property and she still seemed petrified to choose furniture for it in case she made a bad choice or something went wrong.
Once she was settled and she had been supported to set up her bills, Sarah started seeing the new property like home and bought herself some items for it and went on multiple shopping trips with her support worker to get what she needed for her new place.
As she settled in she began to rebuild positive connections with her family. Her mum would drop off care packages and her brother helped put together flat pack furniture. Sarah reconnected with her now adult daughter and spent some quality, meaningful time with her.
Sarah has managed to keep her methadone script in place and reduce her drug use to the point of being almost completely clean. She has started doing activities again that she once loved, such as swimming and listening to music, and is rediscovering who she is. This has all supported the improvement in her mental health. In May 2020 Sarah was signed off from having to report to probation and squealed down the phone in excitement when she told her worker.
The impact of Housing First
Sarah’s worker called her to get permission to write up this case study. “Absolutely!!” she shouted repeatedly. She added:
“The streets made me lose my identity, it wiped it. I had no self-worth and was an empty person. Only drugs made me feel something, so I kept taking them, because I had nothing to live for. I didn’t know who I was six months ago and I’ve spent the last six months not being able to look in a mirror.
“I realised that I didn’t know how to shop for myself: if I bought anything that was for me when I went to prison the hostels would chuck it out, so I stopped buying myself anything.
“I’ve got the internet at my flat now and my favourite thing is to put music on. I’ve rediscovered so much music I love and haven’t heard in so long. It’s given me my identity back and reminded me who I am.
“I walk down the street now and the police don’t recognise me. Prison seems a million miles away from my life now.”
With thanks to ‘Sarah’ and Opportunity Nottingham.
Housing First and Building Better Futures
Discover the 7 Principles of Housing First here.
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