Churches Homeless Emergency Support Scheme, or CHESS Homeless, is a charity based in Essex, England, that comprises faith groups working together to provide assistance to homeless individuals. Rob Saggs is CEO of CHESS Homeless. This article is based on a recent interview by Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk and is in Rob’s voice.
What led you to this type of charity work?
My life is focused on the notion of “I want to help.” I’m very fortunate. I am blessed with a lovely family and I have a desire to help and work with people. I am trained as a chef so my background is quite varied. From my days as a chef, I met my wife, got married, and moved to the north of England where we worked in a faith-based organization for four years.
In my younger days, my best friend, who is now my brother-in-law, became homeless. I wanted to do everything I could to help him. I was lodging with a friend and we put him up for a little bit. I kept in close contact and eventually was able to help him.
I felt initially that my route would be to lead a church. I was a youth pastor for about five years in a church in the north of England. I led a youth group, which went from a dozen to about 60, and took missions across to Spain, South Africa, all sorts of places. And then we moved to the south of England and led a church for 10 years.
But in leading the church, I needed secular employment. I was fortunate to get a job as operations manager of Chelmsford CHESS, as it was called then, because it operated only in Chelmsford, a city in Essex, and I traveled on that journey for a year. Working with the homeless really struck a chord and we saw a lot of great things happen. So I chose to continue down that path and about three years ago became CEO of CHESS Homeless.
Could you describe how your charity operates?
Our model has evolved over the past 10 years. We started out in the 1990s as a homeless charity offering accommodation during winter. Over time it became apparent that those who are homeless need more than just a roof over their heads. They need ongoing support. We have to have that covered initially—from knowing where my food is going to come from, knowing I’m going to sleep safe tonight, and I’ve got water, electricity, etc.—before building on the precepts of what a person needs to survive. So CHESS took on a night shelter. It was open only during nighttime, but the individuals who came in had a bedroom on a night-by-night basis.
CHESS now has a change program and clients can “journey through the CHESS.” They are assigned a support worker. We work with a lot of other stakeholders in our area including those focused on mental health and drug and substance misuse, debt companies, etc., to help people put their lives back together again.
We now have 11 properties. We have gone from being a small charity where we only had a half a dozen people to having 52 residents over 11 properties—soon to increase by another 11.
The model is a step-by-step program where someone initially will come from the streets. We have outreach workers now so we are funded by the Ministry of Housing central government. They fund outreach workers. My outreach team responds to StreetLink referrals. StreetLink is an initiative that when people see a homeless individual, a member of the public can call in a report and then my team comes into play, if they’re operating in the area, to go and visit that person, find out what their needs are, how they’d become homeless, and hopefully doing an assessment with them that might enable them to come into one of our properties.
From there, after having gone through a few weeks with the team and the staff, and the various assessments, they will then move through a staggered process before they are into some of our more independent accommodation and before they are then moved out into their own independent accommodation. It might be with another provider, another landlord, a private landlord. Or they might move back to somewhere where they once were living, having addressed the issues they were dealing with.
What is your success rate?
Our success ratios over the past few years have increased significantly. This year we reached a roughly 70% success ratio. And that is a planned move. Anybody who comes into our provision, by engaging with the team and other stakeholders we work with, will have addressed those issues, and their move will be planned: from the streets to a rental accommodation, another support and housing provider, back to earlier relationships or to employment that they’ve regained.
What would be valuable additions to what you’re doing?
I wish we had longer-term committed funding. We’re just about to become a £1 million charity. When I started, we were at about £350,000. Now we are at the £1.1 million mark. A sizable chunk of that is fundraised money. I would say we’re looking at grants and trusts to fund about £250,000 of that.
One other thing that would be really useful is if we didn’t have to rent some of the properties so that the income derived from the housing benefit we claim from the client is income that helps sustain the organization. We are in the south of England, only 30 minutes away from London, and property prices are expensive. Each client gets a local housing allowance that should help them rent a property. The available local housing, however, isn’t enough to rent in this area. In the north of England, the rent market is much cheaper and affordable. So the properties that we have, when they are rent-free, sustain the organization and enable us to fund the team and the things that the team needs to function.
What trends are you seeing when it comes to addressing homelessness?
Something that is gaining more attention in the UK is upstreaming, where you deal with all the causes and the issues around homelessness—street homelessness specifically. Now they want to fund operations that deal with the issues before people end up on the streets.
We are working with domestic abuse charities now, as well. We partnered with another charity that is working with women facing domestic abuse called Safer Places. We also hope to engage significantly with addressing mental health issues. Ten years ago, many people came to the streets with drink-related issues with very few drug-related issues. Now, there is a significant increase in the number of people with drug and substance-related issues. Mental health can be a byproduct of that, so we’re looking at all those types of things in how we help people address those issues. We are working with an organization that helps people address substance-related issues called Open Road.
Overall, partnership is a proactive way of resolving problems. We don’t have all the resources. What we do have is accommodation and some excellent support staff who work with our clients. We need to get as many professionals in other fields around the table to work with our clients so that they have the full marketplace at their disposal, meaning each client is able to address the issues that will help them become free again.
Do you track your alumni?
We do not have funding for tracking the moves of our clients once they have moved out because we do not want a fast turnaround. We want to see them take solid steps and prove that they are taking those steps and managing themselves well.
We cheer them on from the sidelines, not wanting to see them again by being one of our clients. We’d love to see them volunteer. We’d love to see them mentor or work with the clients who we work with.
Do you have programs where alumni can return and help?
They have to have been six months out on their own and then they can come in and volunteer and go through our induction program. If there are opportunities, they are eligible to apply for jobs. One of our employees was an ex-resident of CHESS.
Are you open to others to contact your organization to learn more?
We would love to help out. We want to see homeless people resolve the issues that resulted in them becoming homeless in the first place. Whatever we have that is working, CHESS Homeless would love to share it.