Salvation Army open £6.8m Southampton hostel

FIVE months ago Mark Wilkinson had a steady job as a community safety officer with Hampshire County Council and lived with his wife and young son in Freemantle.

Struck down by illness, the 38-year-old quit work, lost his family and could no longer afford to pay the rent on his home. Within a matter of weeks he had been evicted and was sleeping rough in a park near the Territorial Army Centre in Millbrook.

“I hit rock bottom, it doesn’t get any lower,” the former Royal Navy mine warfare specialist told the Daily Echo this week.

Not knowing where to go for help, Mark spent two nights alone in the park before eventually taking himself to Patrick House Hostel, in Millbrook Road.

A couple of weeks later, in October, he was transferred to the Salvation Army’s recently opened Booth Centre, in Oxford Street. Neighbouring some of Southampton’s most renowned restaurants in one of the city’s most exclusive streets, it is an unlikely setting for a hostel.

But for 100 years the site has provided shelter to those most in need of help, first as a temporary home for sailors and then, from 1970, as the Salvation Army-run hostel for single men.

In 2005, the Mountbatten Centre closed to undergo a multimillion- pound redevelopment, funded by the Government.

Today all that remains of the Edwardian building is its elegant facade. Behind it lies a brand new £6.8m state-of-the art facility that not only provides comfortable accommodation for 46 homeless people in Southampton, but a much-needed lifeline.

“My life has improved 100 per cent,” Mark said. “I have got my self-esteem back and I am coping with life again. I would probably still be on the street if it wasn’t for this place.”

Lucas Cutler, 23, from Shirley, has also seen his life turn around since moving into the Booth Centre two months ago. Following a family dispute, he had spent the past three years moving from one city hostel to another, but none, he says, can compare to his new home.

“It’s peaceful, it’s clean and it’s quiet,” Lucas said. “Compared with other hostels it’s like a hotel – just without the room service.”

Since moving to Oxford Street two months ago, his spacious third-floor en suite bedroom has been transformed into a makeshift recording studio, complete with decks and a computer.

A South African flag, the native country of his parents, hangs from a cupboard while posters and flyers from recent gigs proudly adorn a wall. “I’m a music producer,” Lucas enthuses.

He’s already set up a music label, SO1 Recordings, with a bunch of mates – including “Madman Hyghar”, “Trigga” and “4BY” – and is now planning to launch an in-house radio station at the centre.

“I’m not in it for the fame or fortune, I just want to make music. We are trying to get everyone involved to promote peace and reduce crime in Southampton,” he said.

“I’ve got all the support I need business-wise in here and they will also help me with job searches and learning new skills.”

When he’s not on the decks, Lucas can be found getting his hands dirty in the ground floor kitchen, learning how to cook.

He’s set to be one of a team of residents that will help run a new conference facility due to launch at the centre in the New Year.

The “social enterprise” project is at the heart of the Salvation Army’s approach to help people get back their identity and selfesteem.

Centre manager Jo Cherriman said they were not just putting a roof over the heads of the homeless, but giving people the opportunity to get their lives back on track.

“We are trying to make a difference to people and actually give them something worthwhile to achieve and to move forward in their life,” she said.

There were 21 people sleeping rough on the streets of Southampton last month and another 38 at risk of doing so, according to the council’s latest figures.

Ms Cherriman said the full impact of the recession had yet to be felt and that there was a danger more people could find themselves homeless in the near future.

The centre is currently home to 40 people, including couples, women and men of all ages who can live there for up to two years.

They are free to come and go, as long as they spend five nights a week in their beds. Alcohol is kept to a minimum, there is no curfew and they all prepare their own meals in shared kitchens on each floor.

Unlike the old Mountbatten Centre, residents must be referred to the facility by social services and cannot walk in off the street.

It’s hoped this will ease the concerns of businesses in Oxford Street,who four years ago, ahead of the redevelopment, complained of antisocial behaviour by some residents.

As someone who, until this year, lived a “normal” life, Mark is perhaps best placed to offer a unique perspective on homelessness.

“It’s changed my attitude 100 per cent,” he said. “There are people out there who need help and it’s not necessarily their fault that they are homeless – its through the circumstances they find themselves in.”

Mark has spent the past two months rebuilding his life and is already working towards a new career in security and getting his own home.

“In here, life is whatever you make it,” he adds.

The Booth Centre was officially opened by the leader of The Salvation Army in the UK, territorial commander commissioner John Matear, on Saturday.

In the footsteps of William Booth

NAMED after the founder of The Salvation Army, William Booth, pictured above, the centre is the largest of its kind in the UK.

Today’s opening marks a historic moment for the site, which has been a landmark on Oxford Street for more than 100 years.

The site was originally owned by Queen’s College, Oxford, and was bought in 1907 by George Yates Mercer of Bassett.

His society paid for the construction of a three-storey building as a temporary home for sailors while they were in Southampton.

It opened on October 27, 1909, and offered 43 cubicles for sailors and seven bedrooms for officers.

Sailors paid two shillings a night and officers three and sixpence, while breakfast (with meat) cost nine pence, and dinner (including beer) was a shilling.

Demand exceeded supply and the society soon found itself renting overflow premises across the street.

In 1912, a fourth storey was added which provided a further 50 cubicles. A number of the Titanic’s crew spent their last night ashore in the Sailors’ Home.

It only suffered minor damage during the Second World War and, in 1944, the Government took over much of the building for the crews of smaller boats involved in the D-Day operations.

When the society celebrated its centenary in 1961 – eight years before it was closed – it was estimated two million seaman had made use of it.

The change in practices in the shipping industry, notably containerisation, saw a rapid decline in ships and crew in the 1960s.

The society sold the building to the Salvation Army for £72,500 in 1969 and 80 per cent of the proceeds were passed to King George’s Fund for Sailors.

The Salvation Army reopened the building on May 14, 1970, as a hostel for 62 single men.