Scottish Churches Housing Action pays a visit to Fresh Start Borders

SCHA visitFresh Start Borders was set up in 2009, with support from Scottish Churches Housing Action, whose administrator Lauren Forbes reports on a visit to the charity last month to see how things were going.

“Thank you very much – tears in my eyes!”

The heartfelt thank you above is just one of the many grateful comments that Fresh Start Borders volunteers have received from starter pack recipients since they started up in 2009. Four of us from SCHA visited the team in Selkirk: Alastair Cameron, chief executive, SCHA Board members Brian Graham and Joe Cassidy, and myself.

We had picked a rainy day (not difficult this summer!) but received a very warm welcome from Irene McFadzen and her team of volunteers at Shepherd’s Mill where Fresh Start Borders store starter pack items, and make up the packs. We were ushered in from the rain, and Irene introduced us to the secretary Chris Sharpe, treasurer Dave Neilson and volunteers Pat Fisher, Roz Dooner and Freda Nicolson.

The volunteers come along every Wednesday to make up packs in response to referrals – these come from Scottish Borders Council’s homelessness service, housing associations, Penumbra, and other sources such as Citizen’s Advice and Women’s Aid. Almost 2,000 packs have gone out to people since Fresh Start Borders started up. Most of the packs go to Hawick or Galashiels, but also other towns or villages in the Borders.

We saw some of the feedback forms the team receive, the overwhelming number of these very positive. The number of referrals varies each week, and as that day was unusually quiet, the team had time to show us round and explain how things work. We were aware first of all that the former mill unit is very old, and buckets had been strategically placed to catch drips from the ceiling. However the team is grateful to have this space free of charge, and other locations which have been offered are considerably smaller. Repairs are underway on the roof, but this could take some time.

One good problem the team has is the sheer volume of donations. Word has travelled far about the service they provide, and they have received large amounts of bedding, curtains, crockery and kitchen utensils. At times they receive somewhat puzzling household utensils, and respond with humour and a competition to guess the use in their Christmas newsletter! The items are sorted and arranged to make for speedier work when referrals come in, so they can locate what’s suitable, whether for a single person, male or female, or a family with children. They have some new electrical items such as kettles and toasters and also new bedding which is bought in bulk with support from Scottish Borders Council. Thanks to a Co-op Community Fund donation of £2,000 they can now provide toiletries too. Other new donations come from Home Basics in Hawick and Walkerburn, and Scottish Enterprise has also provided much support.

SCHA visit 2Once the packs have been made up they are collected by council support workers or representatives from other agencies for delivery to the person or family in their new home. The team don’t know who the recipient will be. They go the extra mile, using their own skills and talents. Irene is a great seamstress, and makes linen bags to hold toiletries and other items; one team member has a contact who crochets blankets.

Following our visit to the mill, we made our way with Irene, Dave, Chris, Roz and Freda to the Baptist Church hall in Back Row. As Freda explained, as she navigated for us, “In Selkirk you’re either going up a hill, or down a hill – and it’s usually up!” We arrived there in a series of ups and downs…

We were joined at the hall by Kirsty Armstrong from the council’s homelessness service, and Carol Robertson from Eildon Housing Association. Over a sandwich lunch we heard about issues surrounding homelessness in the Borders. Kirsty explained that the number of support workers in the council has had a drastic reduction. Fresh Start Borders had noticed a decrease in referrals from both the council and housing associations, which could also be due to a change to new staff unaware of the service. Irene resolved to contact former referral agencies, to remind them what Fresh Start Borders can offer.

Both Kirsty and Carol expressed concern at changes to the benefits system, and the impending move to Universal Credit. This will potentially raise many issues for vulnerable people, with the assumption that all are able to budget over four weeks, with a very small amount to cover bills and essential costs, AND that all have access to computers. There is concern that sanctions will increase, with an impact on people’s ability to pay their rent. Alastair mentioned SCHA’s interest in running the SQA’s Tenancy & Citizenship course, which could help people sustain their tenancy.

We discussed affordable housing in the Borders, and learned that Eildon Housing is building new homes in Galashiels, Kelso & Newtown St Boswells, with more planned, including other Borders towns. Kirsty mentioned Trinity House in Hawick which provides supported accommodation for a group of 16-18 year olds, helping young people who have been in care or who have to leave home suddenly, and who do not have experience of coping with a tenancy. It is in high demand, so tenants cannot stay there longer term.

Following lunch and our chat, Alastair thanked Irene and the Fresh Start Borders team for their hospitality – we all very much enjoyed our visit to Selkirk to meet them. As one of us remarked, the volunteers are a well-oiled machine, very dedicated in their task (and there is a waiting list of others willing to help). They obviously work well together, with plenty of humour, or in focused silence on a busy day. And as for those people receiving their packs in their new home, the feedback forms speak for themselves.