Former rough sleeper takes on new role at West Suffolk councils to tackle sleepers on the streets

A rough sleeper’s prevention and support officer, working to encourage people away from a life sleeping on the streets, said everyone has a part to play in addressing the issue.

Rhys Walters was once homeless and experienced sleeping rough himself. He counts himself as one of the fortunate people that received help from support services to turn his life around.

He is now working with West Suffolk councils to try to encourage the growing number of homeless people, in particular in Bury St Edmunds, to engage with the available support to help bring about positive and lasting change to their lives.

He said: “It is common to find that these individuals have experienced severe emotional trauma during their childhood or adolescence and struggle to form healthy relationships as adults. Of the 24 rough sleepers that I am working with in the town, many possess some form of mental health and/or substance misuse issues. A compassionate approach which recognises them as an individual is fundamental in encouraging these men and women to gain access to the local agencies that can help address the barriers that exist to leading more independent and productive lives.”

One of those barriers is trust and often it takes time for people who have complex backgrounds and health needs, some who also feel they have been let down in the past, to engage with those services which are trying to help them.

Rhys said: “We are seeing examples of success conducted through this new outreach service. One of my most satisfying moments was to recently see one elderly gentleman who had been living in woods for the last four years come forward, for fear he would not survive another winter. He has now been housed in the area where he grew up.

“With winter approaching, we are working to set up a winter night shelter although this on its own is unlikely to be able to accommodate all of the homeless that we currently have on our streets. The difficulty is that there isn’t an abundant supply of suitable housing in suitable locations to offer people the chance to come in off the streets. Sometimes a homeless person may turn down the offer of housing not because he or she wants to stay on the streets, but because the location is away from any support networks they have or they choose to distance themselves from former associates.

“We are appealing for landlords to work with us. The council or its partners left by themselves will not be able to solve this growing issue on their own.

“I would encourage the public if they are concerned about someone they observe to be sleeping rough on the streets to use the national service to report it which makes us aware of rough sleepers not previously known to us.”

Rhys has been appointed on two-year long trial after West Suffolk councils, together with Babergh and Mid Suffolk, successively bid for Government funding.

The role is part of a raft of measures by West Suffolk councils to address the growing issues of homelessness and the council is currently working to secure a winter night shelter for homeless people in Bury St Edmunds, while it is also calling for help from landlords whose properties could be used to house the homeless or those who are at risk of becoming homeless.

The visible side of homelessness – those people that we see sleeping on the streets, is just the tip of the iceberg of housing need with many families finding themselves in unsuitable, overcrowded accommodation, and individuals ‘sofa surfing’.

West Suffolk councils have been working with a range of partners including the police, probation service and the NHS’ Marginalised Vulnerable Adults Service, to identify and prevent people from becoming homeless.

It receives an average of 70 calls a week from people who want advice. Since January, the two councils have dealt with 187 homeless applications and prevented or assisted 317 families to stop them becoming homeless.
Councillor Sara-Mildmay-White, West Suffolk councils’ Cabinet Member for Housing said: “Homelessness and the reasons people end up living on the streets, is a complex issue and is not one that a council can tackle on its own. While we work with many partners and have established a winter provision we will always need the support of landlords because put simply, when someone needs emergency housing, there is a finite number of places where we can accommodate them.

“We are also appealing to people who want to help those in need to give their time and money to Gatehouse and the Bury Drop-in Centre.”

You can obtain an application form to volunteer with Bury Drop In by emailing: or by calling in at The Bury Drop In during opening hours from 11am to 2pm, Tuesdays and Fridays, at Trinity Methodist Church.

You can donate provisions to Gatehouse in Dettingen Way, Bury St Edmunds, IP33 3TU or te;ephone 01284 754967. Its store is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9am to 3pm and on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm. National and local charities which support homelessness are also available and welcome donations.

You can also donate food to the West Suffolk Vineyard Church Storehouse which distribute food bags. Donations can be taken to its offices at 28 Northern Way, Bury St Edmunds between 9am and 1pm Monday to Friday, or to King Edward VI School on Sunday mornings.

If you have spare time or are a landlord or a business that can offer any form of help, contact

Pictured is Rhys Walters in one of the walkways in Bury St Edmunds which is used by rough sleepers

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