Sunday, 22 June 2008

Homelessness and the Alma Hotel

The Alma Hotel, at the top of Fishergate, was closed down a fortnight ago. The hotel, almost on the doorstep of County Hall, was regularly the source of all kinds of problems for local people and the police. The hotel was badly managed, with many rooms being sub-let. It had become a destination for many people living on the margins of society, including ex-prisoners, drug users, alcoholics and people with many other kinds of problems.

BRAG and PACT worked hard to get the Alma hotel closed down. PC Carl Ingram spent months collecting a catalogue of examples of anti-social behaviour, drug and alcohol related disturbances and event after event that had made the lives of neighbours an unrelenting misery. Some members of BRAG showed particular courage and leadership by standing up and speaking out in the witness box in court, despite the real possibility of repercussions, when the Alma case was heard.

At the BRAG meeting where the Alma closure was announced, BRAG members passed a vote of thanks to Carl Ingram for the work that he put in to making sure that the Alma was closed.

Sensationalist press coverage of the closure, which claimed that residents were 'celebrating' the closure of the hotel has however provoked a backlash. In reality most people felt it was a sad neccessity, and regretted the fact that some people were made homeless. Some people blamed the landlord more than anybody, as his management of the hotel had allowed it to go completely out of hand, and while residents lost their homes as a result of the closure, all he lost was 3 months rent.

Greg Smith, who has devoted his life to working with the homeless, feels that some voices have not been heard. he said

Personally I found the headline "Crack House Closed Down" totally unnacceptable, as was a lot of the press coverage of the case of the Alma Hotel. It suggested everyone in the community was jumping with glee at what the police and the courts had done.

I for one wasn't.

I know it was a difficult problem and I know the local police acted in good faith thinking what was the best solution all round, and they tried very hard to find shelter for the people who lived there. But despite all that there was too much "collateral damage" with lots of people ending up homeless, proabably about half a dozen added to the total of rough sleepers. What's more as I understand it none of the residents was charged or brought before the courts for any crime.

In Britain the law is supposed to presume people innocent until proven guilty. But in this case it seems a pretty rotten law that can deprive anyone of the only home they have without proving that they have done anything wrong, leaving them without any rights to be rehoused. Headlines like the one in question push us all into thinking that everyone involved was a notorious criminal. It just ain't fair and it just ain't true.

Greg wrote the following article to express his views in response to the coverage in the Lancashire Evening Post and the Broadgate News:

The recent closure of the Alma Hotel has highlighted some of the uncomfortable issues facing some of those trying to make a home in our community. When for whatever reason you are poor and vulnerable you get ripped off all round, by landlords, by drug dealers, by cider sellers and by your own mates. You get stressed out and start behaving badly and then you get blamed by everyone. Before your know it you are being moved on and you benefit gets stopped and the police are after you. You might go to jail for a while and then when you come out with nothing, the cycle starts all over again.

What the story should lead us to is great sadness and increased concern for those who are on the edges of society. There are plenty of rough sleepers, homeless and near homeless in Preston and the type of properties at the top of Fishergate Hill have tended to concentrate them in our neighbourhood.

Last week someone (probably homeless) was found dead locally there. Most days when I walk my dog through the fields near the river I see people sleeping in tents, or in bivouacs. The other day we disturbed a chap sleeping in the open in the long grass, I thought at first it was a dead body. And they say there is not a huge problem of rough sleeping in Preston, when they tried to do an overnight count they've only found half a dozen or so, but that's because its only within the city centre, and rough sleepers tend to hide pretty well anyway.

In my day job I work with and have become friends with some of these guys and girls who are destitute, who come to drop ins at various churches or who sell the Big Issue. Whatever any of them have done, however they behave and smell, they all have a story, often a sad story of how people and society has failed them and rejected them. Above all they are all human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity. As a Christian I always try to ask "How would Jesus deal with them?" and the short answer is "with compassion not with contempt."

When people get into such trouble it is usually a great long struggle to turn their life around. We have known many who have failed, others who have taken two steps forward then one back and a few who with proper support and the help of good services have made it back into mainstream community life and to earning their own living. We should be thankful that in Preston there are a group of agencies who care and work hard to make a difference to such people, working together through the network of the Preston Homeless Forum. If you want to know more about this and how best to do something to help the homeless contact the forum through its website at or via The Foxton Centre, Knowsley St.,Avenham, Preston PR1 3SA, tel 01772 555925

Greg Smith

What's your view of the Alma closure?

Are you glad it's closed because this makes life better for local people?
Are you concerned that it just shifts the problems somewhere else?
Are you worried about those who now sleep rough as a consequence?
Are you worried that we will get more of the same when the 3 months' closure is up?
Was there really any alternative to the closure?
Is there really no way to help people out of the spiral of drugs, crime, prison and homelessness?

Please let us know what you think by posting your comments below.

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