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Reflections on a 50th birthday

Most people upon reaching a milestone birthday have a period of reflection – looking back and reviewing what has been achieved and thinking about the next few years. An organisation is no different – organisational history is important and looking to the future is critical.

St Martins began its life in a garage at Norwich Cathedral. The Dean at the time (Dean Alan Webster) made a garage available for people who were sleeping rough. This was the first emergency accommodation supported by St Martins. The first person to use this facility was a gentleman called Eddie.

Within a year the first Night Shelter opened in the redundant church of St James (now the Norwich Puppet Theatre) in Barrack Street. The shelter was supported by volunteers and became an 18 bed night shelter offering basic accommodation for people sleeping rough in Norwich.

Despite very basic amenities, the Night Shelter was in ever increasing demand, and within a few years new premises were needed to cope with the growing number of people needing this facility. In 1976, the Shelter relocated to St Martin at Oak, a redundant church on Oak Street.

As time progressed it became increasingly obvious that many of the people using the night shelter needed supported care. St Martins House on Westwick Street opened in 1990 (now a residential care home called Highwater House).

Over the last thirty years St Martins has been slowly growing in response to the needs of the local community.

Currently St Martins provides emergency assessment and hostel facilities, residential care, sheltered housing and community homes for 234 people. Outreach services operate daily on the streets and support is provided to people in their own homes to help them to retain their tenancies. There is also a learning and development centre providing a wide range of opportunities for the people supported by St Martins. At any one time in the region of 300 people are using St Martins services supported by a team of almost 200 specialist workers.

From humble beginnings St Martins has grown into one of the largest local charities in the area and is the biggest homeless charity in Norfolk.

Our 50th anniversary evokes feelings of both pride and sadness. Pride that the organisation is able to provide such a comprehensive range of specialist services but sadness that they are needed in 2022.

We’re often asked if it is possible to end rough sleeping. We know from ‘Everyone in’ in March 2020 it is certainly possible to end rough sleeping quickly and short term. However, a more sustainable approach to ending rough sleeping relies upon three key drivers: funding, housing and political will. To end rough sleeping forever there needs to be a sufficiency of funding, social housing and political will.

In Norwich our annual street count data shows that we are making slow and steady progress. Later this year we hope to have an additional 24 beds available to accommodate people. This will bring us ever closer to our vision of nobody sleeping rough on the streets of Norwich. It may have taken 50 years of twists, turns and challenges but we are now closer to ending rough sleeping on the streets of Norwich than ever before.