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How St Martins became more than a home for the homeless

St Martins has adapted our services over the decades to respond to the changing needs of the people we support. We now have a range of services which have evolved in response to the diverse and complex needs that have arisen.

In 1971 a report highlighted the fact that nearly 50 people were sleeping rough in Norwich. The Norwich Council of Churches decided to provide a night shelter in the city. A redundant church building – St James on Barrack Street – was chosen. Mattresses were laid down in the nave. A kitchen where soup and tea could be made were arranged in the vestry.

At first the Night Shelter was for men only. In the winter of 1974 a homeless young woman came at night begging to be allowed in. From that time women have been accommodated.

In 1975 it was decided to sell St James and lease the empty church as St Martin’s at Oak. The building was larger and in a quieter, more suitable site. The whole project was renamed St Martin’s Housing Trust in 1980.

The night shelter was not suitable for people to stay long term so St Martins leased eight houses in the city; 33 people lived in these houses.

There were a number of residents who were unlikely to ever look after themselves but couldn’t stay at the night shelter indefinitely. In 1983 a new home was established for these ‘long stay’ residents. This was Carrow Hill home in Bracondale and accommodated 18 people.

In 1988 it was decided a night shelter was not adequate. People had nowhere to go during the day. There was little privacy. The decision was made for a custom-built hostel with good facilities for sleeping, eating and leisure. Funded through Norwich City Council and public donations a new hostel called St Martin’s House on Westwick Street was opened in 1990.  In 1997 a resettlement team was established to help people moving on from St Martins services into their own accommmodation.

In April 2002 the night shelter was replaced by Bishopbridge House, a purpose-built hostel on Gas Hill.  St Martins House was renovated and renamed Highwater House, catering for the increasing number of residents with substance abuse and poor mental health.

There was a need for learning opportunities for people to gain life skills and keep occupied, so Under 1 Roof was opened in 2010 in the premises next door to Highwater House.

Carrow Hill was no longer fit-for-purpose for its ageing residents so the service was moved to Webster Court in Lakenham as a service for people over the age of 50 who had experienced homelessness.  Webster Court was opened in 2015 and named after Revd Alan Webster, Dean of Norwich Cathedral who was the founder of the original night shelter.

More and more people were arriving on the streets and St Martins hostel was always full and had to turn people away. After a phenomenal fundraising campaign, an extension to Bishopbridge House was built offering an extra ten beds.

Still more people were becoming homeless. In 2020 the Somewhere Safe to Stay Hub was opened on Recorder Road, offering short term temporary accommodation to people who would otherwise be sleeping rough.

St Martins is more than a home for the homeless. Alongside all this accommodation is consistent and patient support, offered by St Martins team members. As well as support workers, the team comprises maintenance workers, cleaners, finance and administrators. St Martins has grown dramatically over fifty years but we have never lost sight of our vision to support people experiencing homelessness. We wish we weren’t needed but we will never give up.

We’re not celebrating our anniversary; but we are celebrating the lives we have impacted, and the determination of those we have supported who have turned their lives around.