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It's 3am on the cold streets of Oldham, people are in crisis and there's nowhere for them to go
In the second part of our series chronicling life in austerity hit Oldham, Politics and Investigations Editor Jen Williams spends the evening with the volunteers of the Street Angels project - and finds kindness, sadness and a ravaged safety net
It is past midnight in Oldham town centre, Saturday night bleeding into Sunday as drinkers noisily drift from pub to club.
Tucked just off the main drag, Rev Jean Hurlston and her tight-knit group of volunteers are sober, in both senses of the word.
Volunteers at her Street Angels project, set up to support public services by helping people who get into difficulties in the town centre at the weekend - either because of minor injuries, fights, homelessness or general drunkenness - are worried.
Their paramedic, Gemma, has just found an elderly homeless man out-of-it on the streets. Jim, not his real name, had popped in earlier on for a brew and some cake, as many of those sleeping rough in the town do, for warmth, sustenance or company. He hadn’t really said much before shuffling back out into the night.
Gemma has now found him barely conscious on the streets and is whispering to Jean in a low, worried voice. I have been here for the last few hours, watching as the team hand out hot drinks and bowls of chilli, taking the various tragic stories they hear in their stride. But now they don’t know what to do.
Jim appears to have fallen over but is suffering from no obvious injuries or mental health crisis. Yet at nearly 70 he is vulnerable, one of the town’s drifting population of street homeless often more associated with Manchester next door.
Gemma manages to get enough information from him to learn that his last house was in Rochdale, so they make an early-hours phone call to Rochdale council. No, they say. He’s not ours. He’s originally from Oldham.
The volunteers then try Oldham council’s out-of-hours service. No, they say. He can come in tomorrow morning, but they have nothing for him right now.
He slumps silently in a chair as everyone wonders aloud what to do next.
Rough sleeping may be a more visible problem in the city centre a few miles away than in its peripheral towns like Oldham, but the gaps in the system are just the same. Although Jean, the Dean of Oldham, set up Street Angels in 2011 as a general support service for Saturday nights, it gradually evolved into a drop-in for the town’s homeless.
I listen as two men, probably not older than 40, share gallows humour over a coffee.
One, who says he became homeless after a relationship breakdown, has been sleeping under a railway arch. When he applied for housing, he received a letter - he says - informing him he was not a priority as his current housing situation ‘is not a threat to his health’.
They laugh darkly.
Volunteer Peter Russell, 26, is all too familiar with the scenario. A few weeks ago he was helped off the streets by the project, ‘the first place I’ve ever asked for help’.
“I think there’s just a break in the system,” he says of the path to destitution. “With zero hour contracts, it’s hard for people to keep their home.
“I was living in my house six years and getting into debt and arrears and becoming homeless, paying them off then going back into them… It was the month’s difference that always set it off, when you lose work and go onto benefits.
“I feel for people in that situation.”
Peter speaks with quiet anger of the spiral he and others have found themselves in. “It’s trying to keep a rhythm, trying to keep things flowing,” he says of juggling rent with wages.
“I’ve worked on the markets, I’ve worked cash in hand doing walls and flagstones, painting, bakeries, I’ve just had to keep a bit of a flow up.”
Sometimes, though, that just gets too much, he says.
“I’ve had it a few times over the years since I was 16.
“You’d have work, then everything has come to a crash, work, family, health, one after the other. I don’t have much family and I definitely don’t choose to ask for help.”
Eventually he landed up on the streets. Even then, he was working, but in the end it was unsustainable.
“While I was homeless, I still had my job over at JD.
“I was still doing my 12-hour shifts. I struggled to sleep through the day and also do my work. I didn’t really have a great Christmas with the weather. It became harder to hide it for work. Luckily they had showers there but people were realising I was staying back to have a shower when everyone else was rushing off. It became noticeable.”
Now in temporary accommodation, he says he wants to give back by helping out at Street Angels. Jean says the project has ended up being focused more and more on destitution, although Gemma - who is funded by the NHS - also takes a huge weight off emergency services by patching up revellers and keeping them out of A&E.
“The biggest thing is the rough sleeping and homelessness,” she says, adding that Universal Credit and other benefits issues are a common cause.
“That’s why we started to say: how can we respond in more of a strategic and meaningful way - and that’s when we set up the drop-in.
“We were going round the town and bumping into people who were begging and we’d say ‘do you want us to bring hot drinks’? And we’d go back and find they’d moved on.
“We decided to go out and invite people to come in so they can have a hot meal, clothing, conversation.
“The first thing you do is welcome them. It doesn’t matter what they came in for. Often you find out why and people sort of open up as they get to know us.”
While she admits the charity is undoubtedly plugging gaps in the system, she does not see that as a negative thing.
“There are people who will say we shouldn’t be doing it, we’re propping up failing services,” she says.
“But actually I think we should be doing it, because we should practice what we preach. It’s about linking with the civic community, local voluntary sector, faith being real.
“What do you do for the town? It’s more than the service. It’s about looking inwards, it’s about looking outwards.”
At about 2am a young man comes in while the team is still wondering what to do about Jim.
He asks for a sleeping bag but they’ve run out, so he takes a Soreen bar, one of many regular donations from Chadderton FC.
They offer him a duvet, but he shakes his head.
“Nah,” he says quietly. “The wind just rips through it.”
At nearly 3am, the team comes to a decision. There is nowhere for Jim to go apart from A&E, despite there being nothing really wrong with him. They know that once the hospital realises this, they will almost certainly discharge him - but at least he will be safe and warm for a few hours.
He doesn’t have any money or a mobile, so they write him a note with the number for Oldham’s housing team and slip it into his pocket with £2.50 for the following morning, before preparing to order a taxi.
“Look at that face, how much character there is in it,” says Jean, quietly, as the team sit and look at him. “A life well lived.”
As I leave, they are waiting for the cab. I walk out into the dark 3am air and drive back to Manchester, feeling guilty, hollow and lucky all at once.
Since this article was researched in April, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has agreed to extend its night shelter scheme - 'A Bed Every Night' - throughout the rest of this year, including in Oldham.
For more about Oldham's Street Angels, see here .
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