Nothing gives you a greater sense of how the economy is performing than getting out and meeting the people who are making it happen, in companies up and down the country. So I get a huge amount out of visiting regions and devolved countries across the United Kingdom – whether the people I meet get anything out of it remains uncertain!
For the past year or so, however, we’ve been getting an even richer sense of what’s working in the economy (and often what’s not) through our Community Forum initiative. These forums are an opportunity to broaden who we meet on these visits.
So it is in this spirit that I find myself in the lounge of Matthew (not his real name), in his flat in Maritime Court in Wallsend, North Tyneside. Matthew’s actually at work at a nearby café, but he’s generously granted us permission to take a look inside. I’m here with representatives from Depaul UK, a national youth homelessness charity, which does a lot of work in North Tyneside.
Nineteen-year-old Matthew is one of the success stories, as the trophies and certificates on the shelves testify. He’s overcome plenty of obstacles on his way to Maritime Court, where he receives the support he needs from the Depaul team based on site to help with all the complications that can arise from time to time. But this is his own flat; his base as he embarks on what will hopefully be a successful career.
Matthew’s next step will, all being well, be a flat or house nearby, where he will live completely independently, albeit with one of the Depaul team looking out for him.
Sean, who I meet downstairs in the little Depaul office on site, has recently made that step. He talks openly and honestly about the issues he faced, including a short spell on the streets, before finding help from Depaul. He ended up with a flat like Matthew’s at Maritime House, and after a year or so living there felt able to make the step to his own place which, handily, is just round the corner.
He popped in to chat to me during his lunch break from his voluntary role at a local charity shop. Life remains tough: money is tight, so tight in fact that trips to the food bank (use of which is tightly controlled because the level of demand is so high) are a regular part of life. But the experiences in the shop are giving Sean invaluable work experience, from which he hopes to build a career in retail.
Matthew and Sean are well on their way through their journey with Depaul UK. More start the journey every day, finding themselves for whatever reason without a bed for the night. Some use the charity’s Nightstop service to stay over in the homes of one of hundreds of volunteers who give up a spare room to a stranger.
At Depaul House in Whitley Bay I meet a few more youngsters beginning that journey. Each has their own story which has led them to the safety provided in this smart, renovated 14-bedroom house (including two beds set aside for ‘crisis use’), just a stone’s throw from the town’s rejuvenated seafront.
The brightly-painted exterior might seem a bit incongruous for a building that is providing emergency support for some of the North East’s most vulnerable young people. But bright colours and a sense of optimism fills the inside, too: around the kitchen table we chat about hopes and opportunities as much as the obstacles and challenges that lie ahead.
Conversations like those at Depaul House and Maritime Court are vivid reminders of the realities facing many young people. About 3,000 of the most vulnerable of them are helped by Depaul every year, and I’m immensely impressed by the services the charity provides. Care, compassion and high professional standards are in evidence throughout our visit. I know that we all have our own challenges at work – the budget, the latest threat to financial stability, dealing with difficult management issues – but believe you me a day with the Depaul team puts it all in perspective!
Back at the former church just off Whitley Bay’s high street that acts as Depaul’s regional HQ some of the charity’s senior leadership team put the personal stories we’ve heard into context.
Homelessness levels are high and rising – I’m told we’re not far off the levels which prompted the charity’s establishment in the first place back in the late 1980s.
Perhaps surprisingly, the North East’s rough sleeping problem isn’t as acute as some other areas, largely because rents here are lower. There may be fewer sleeping bags in the doorways of shops in Newcastle and Sunderland, but other forms of homelessness are high. All of the young people I met at Depaul House had experienced ‘sofa surfing’, for example. It is homelessness (with all the risks that entails) even if the young sofa surfer doesn’t think of it that way.
I hear from the Depaul team about the factors contributing to the rise in demand for their services: the cuts to local authority funding and the issues with welfare reform. I’m also told there has been an explosion in the provision of unregulated providers of accommodation to vulnerable young people.
More positively, I hear about the way Depaul is trialling innovative solutions to the young homelessness problem by using Social Impact Bonds. And I learn how it is investing in preventative measures such as a programme in local schools to help young people diffuse tensions in the family home.
I leave with a much deeper sense of how this community of vulnerable young people live their daily lives, on the fringes of our economy, and with a sense of the barriers that exist to them entering the world of work. And I leave deeply impressed by the contribution of charities such as Depaul and the dedicated staff who work in them.
My visit to the North East also included meetings with several financial institutions based in the region, including banks, building societies and local credit unions.
As with my time spent at Depaul, I heard of successes and of challenges felt in the North East and Cumbria. Building societies talked of bucking the trend and opening branches in more remote parts of the region and of resilient mortgage lending despite a subdued housing market.
Credit unions explained the importance of their role in helping members with financial resilience and providing lending which otherwise might not be available at affordable rates. They explained the financial pressures felt by some of their members but talked positively about the growth of credit unions and their role in the age of digital banking. We even heard some support for our recent policy proposals!
I am grateful to the business leaders, and to Depaul UK’s Daniel Dumoulin, Paul McKenzie, Alan D’Arcy and Shaun Dunn at Depaul UK and all the team in the North East, as well as the residents I met, for sharing their time and thoughts with me. And of course to our wonderful Agents and Outreach and Partnerships team – many thanks!