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Boxing clever on Brighton's homeless crisis
A shipping containers may not be everyone’s dream of an ideal home.
But to the 36 men and women who will move into converted stell boxes in Brighton this weekend, they are a sanctuary.
Sipping a cup of tea in a clean, well decorated and furnished unit, Richard, 38, told me how living in the container will give him a new lease of life.
After years of sleeping rough or living in supported accommodation, he believes this move will finally enable him to stand on his own two feet.
He said: “I was so excited when I heard I had been accepted for one of the units. I’ve been up since 4 o’clock this morning getting ready to move in.
“I spent two years in hostels. I was suffering for a long time from mental and physical health issues. I became homeless because I would destroy property when I was upset.
“When I got admitted to hostel in Brighton, I was living with people with a history of alcoholism and substance abuse.
“I saw a lot of antisocial behaviour – people losing it completely, strangers walking around naked, all sorts.
“This container gives me freedom. There is no-one looking over my shoulder all the time. I am now doing voluntary work and I plan to live here for two years. I can take responsibility for myself.”
The container town, in Richardson’s Yard off New England Road, is the brainchild of Ross Gilbert, boss at Brighton-based developer QED Estates, and is the largest of its kind in the country.
Mr Gilbert saw the idea in action in Europe and knew it could provide a solution to Brighton’s acute homeless and housing problem.
He took the idea to Andy Winter at Brighton Housing Trust. Mr Winter knew of the firm’s track record of regeneration in the New England Quarter but was initially sceptical.
Mr Gilbert said: “When you propose housing homeless people in containers, the reaction is usually one of surprise.
“But when I explained that we owned Richardson’s Yard and had temporary use of land earmarked for future regeneration, we were able to demonstrate what can be done in the short term to help solve the housing shortage.”
The containers are commonly used as homes in Amsterdam, where they form student flats, accommodation for the Salvation Army and a hotel.
The Brighton containers were originally converted for a social housing project in Holland in 2010, but the order to TempoHousing was cancelled due to funding problems.
QED Estates and the Brighton Housing Trust have spent £1 million on the scheme.
Mr Winter said the container town will free up space in supported accommodation which will in turn take people off the street. He said: “We put all tenants through a vetting process. We cannot afford to get this wrong. We will take people who come with a good track record of being tenants in supported housing programmes, usually our own.
“The first tenants are people we have known about for at least a year. Sixty people applied and we whittled that down to 36. It will be fully populated by Monday.
“The units cost £150 a week and all the tenants claim housing benefit. There is also a £12-a-week service charge.
“There is an acute shortage of affordable accommodation in Brighton and Hove. The number of street homeless people in the city increased from 37 in November 2011 to 43 in November 2012.
“However there is a wide consensus that the actual figure now is more likely to be close to 100.
“This development will give people an address and a stable base from which they can go to college, get training and voluntary work which will help them to get a job.
“All this put together will help people leave homelessness behind them forever.”
Looking around the container-come-home, Richard reflected on the distance he has already travelled from his former homeless lifestyle. It was a short journey across the city, but huge in its implications.
He said: “Homeless people have a thing they say to each other when they finally get off the street – ‘your time has come’. Now my time has come.”
My night in a shipping container
By John Keenan
When you tell people you plan to spend the night in a shipping container, it raises an eyebrow.
Tell them that the container is on the site of a former scrapheap and both eyebrows head northward.
Add the fact that your neighbours are all people who have at some time slept rough on the street and your audience will enquire politely about your state of mind.
But that is what I did this week, when I was the first person to occupy Flat 16 at Richardson's Yard in Brighton.
I wish, as a journalist, I could report that it made Breaking Bad look like The Archers.
Not a bit of it. It made Sleepy Hollow look like the City of Sin. The sound-proofed walls kept out the noise from the nearby railway, the fire station and the bustle of Preston Circus and, despite the sub-zero temperatures outside, the room remained warm and restful.
The facilities would not look out of place in a well-run budget chain hotel.
There’s a good reason for this. My 40 ft by 8 ft by 8 ft home was prebuilt to the same template as the rooms you might find in an Ibis. Far from palatial but not exactly Skid Row either.
My TV was an added luxury that full-time tenants will not enjoy. As in the rented sector as a whole, if they want a TV they will have to buy one – and pay for the licence.
The bed was comfortable and the kitchen furniture looked like it came straight out of a Homebase catalogue – because it did.
Graham Heald, retail and distribution director for Homebase, explained why the chain has spent £25,000 supporting the Brighton Housing Trust project.
He said: “We are delighted to be supporting this creative initiative, which is supporting the local community with short-term, affordable accommodation. Although this isn't a long term solution for homelessness, we believe that everyone deserves to live in a home they love, and so we're providing starter packs to each tenant which enables them to do just that.
“By providing furniture, tenants will have a ready-made home waiting for them to move into, that will provide a comfortable and stable environment in their day-to-day lives.”
From scrap yard to sanctuary
The former scrap yard that is now home to 36 people will feature:
The two blocks and the cycle store have green or organic roofs. Each one is planted with a wild flower meadow mix. They will flower in the spring to provide insulation and habitat to help improve biodiversity.
The asphalt will be replaced by of trees dotted around site. A number of these are fruit trees or shrubs which will sprout produce during the summer and autumn months. They will provide oxygen, food and shade as well as improving air quality by removing dust particles from the air.
One block at the site has a 10 kWp (40 panels) solar photovoltaic array. It provides electricity for the whole of the site. If any of the electricity is not used it will be exported into the national grid.
There will be a number of raised beds and areas for food growing around the site, supported by The Brighton Housing Trust’s Grow initiative. There are plans to organise gardening sessions in the spring. Tenants will be encouraged to have hanging baskets or plant boxes.
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