Breaking down barriers
Housing supplier Riverside ECHG’s recent Manchester-based project, Gate Buddies, aims to involve ex-offenders in the rehabilitation of those leaving the prison system and take the stigma away from having a criminal record.
At present, the project is focussed on rehabilitating detainees at HM Prison Manchester. Ex-offenders can volunteer as mentors in order to provide the support and inspiration that recent prison leavers need to re-enter society. The volunteers have all had some form of criminal record, so can relate to offenders’ experiences while also providing vital encouragement, sympathising with them and proving that they can improve their lives.
Church Housing Trust was able to fund the documentation needed for new Gate Buddies volunteers, such as DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks, while they attended training courses. In another incarnation, the Street Buddies project, this has been amazingly effective in encouraging those on the streets to find the help they need and change their lives for the better.
Alena explains how she became a Gate Buddies volunteer. While recovering from an injury, she also broke her jaw, and had to leave her role in finance. Lack of a secure job led to depression and she began shoplifting to distract herself. When she was eventually caught and prosecuted, she asked for help, and was diagnosed as having PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
She has now finished community service, but her criminal record has made returning to work incredibly difficult. When she saw an advert asking for Gate Buddies volunteers, she felt fate had intervened. “I realised I feel happiest when helping others,” she comments, “and I was told that having a criminal record would help me in the role.”
Having something to focus on turned her life around. Alena understands what the social stigma of having a record feels like, and knows that her story can be a powerful message. Gate Buddies, she explains, want “to encourage without condescension. We show them they can talk to you on the level.”
Alena is really enjoying the meetings and training sessions, including Safeguarding Vulnerable Adults, First Aid, and even a Volunteering in the Community “best practice” event. She was amazed at the resources that are available to those leaving prison, many of which detainees simply aren’t made aware. “When I was in that situation I felt I had nobody,” she says, “Now I’m ready and armed with information for people. I can’t wait to get my teeth in to the job.”
10 new Gate Buddies have completed their first Induction to Volunteering with Riverside ECHG, are keen to help and overjoyed at the thought of the positive impact they will have on others. Alongside their training, the team will set up a peer-led volunteer forum, where they will invite other agencies to promote the service further.
Gate Buddies is one of several projects that Church Housing Trust helps fund in Manchester to break the cycle of homelessness. Please donate if you can.