’I understand recovery and giving people hope’

Andy Winter reflects on what he has learned and achieved as Chief Executive of housing charity BHT Sussex, and why he feels overwhelmed to be receiving an honorary degree at this year’s University of Sussex Winter Graduation.

"Begging isn’t to do with rough sleeping, it’s to do with addictions. You can kill people with kindness by giving them money because it might allow them to buy the drugs that day that will kill them."

Andy Winter is voicing what he says has been a controversial view in the homeless industry. But it is one that he stands by after more than 30 years working with Brighton and Hove’s rough sleepers.

This month he retires as chief executive of the charity BHT Sussex (formerly known as Brighton Housing Trust), a post he has held since 2003 and for which he has developed a national reputation.

Over the years, he has carried out ground-breaking research to reveal how some UK cities become ’drug death capitals’, he has set and reached ambitious goals to help BHT’s clients get clean from their addictions and into permanent accommodation, and he has come up with innovative solutions - such as converting shipping containers into 36 studio flats to help with an acute shortage of accommodation in Brighton.

In recognition of his years of dedication, compassion and expertise in helping those on the streets, he is receiving an honorary degree from his alma mater, the University of Sussex, at this year’s winter graduation ceremonies.

Andy, who took a postgraduate diploma in Management Development at Sussex in 1999 [AW1] , says he was "overwhelmed with emotion" when he received a letter announcing his nomination.

"It was not something I had ever considered might come my way," he says. "When I saw the list of previous recipients, I was further overwhelmed and humbled. I am so grateful to those who have supported me over the last 37 years; my colleagues and the clients of BHT Sussex."

There are, he maintains, no easy solution to homelessness. "When I started there were five different groups you would find rough sleeping: care leavers, women and children escaping violence, people with alcohol and drug problems, people with mental health problems, and people leaving the services."

All these years later, he says, we have the same groups, plus an additional one - those finding themselves with nowhere to live because of the high cost of living. "There are people in Brighton in employment who are sleeping in their cars. It’s an appalling situation for one of the richest cities in one of the richest countries in the world."

Andy, who was born and grew up in South Africa, arrived in Brighton in 1979 at the age of 19, ostensibly to avoid conscription into national service in his country. Although he describes his childhood in Cape Town as "idyllic", from a young age he was aware of the shadow of apartheid.

"We always knew something was wrong. My father was a vicar, and we were friends with a black vicar. A couple of people in our street wouldn’t let their children play with us because we had black friends."

Being the son of a pacifist and the nephew of a high-profile anti-apartheid activist influenced Andy’s decision to become a conscientious objector and leave South Africa.

"I was lucky because my parents were born here and so I had a British passport. If I had stayed and refused to respond to my call-up, I would have been arrested, put on trial, sent to prison and then get called up on my release."

Despite his fortunate escape, he was deeply unhappy after arriving in Brighton, where his two sisters ("living freely as feminists and lesbians") had already decamped. He says: "I discovered early on that the way people socialised in the UK was around alcohol and pubs. And I am teetotal. I have never liked the smell, taste or effect of alcohol, so I didn’t know how to meet people.

"I was really miserable. I drifted around. The whole idea of loneliness resonates with me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had no qualifications."

He eventually found work as a carer at St Dunstan’s, a home for First World War veterans, where he admits his stance as a conscientious objector was occasionally challenged.

In the meantime, he discovered his tribe by becoming involved in local politics and activism. After organising a demonstration against the Falklands War in 1982, he was encouraged to stand for election to Brighton Borough Council and was eventually elected for Regency ward in Brighton in 1985 at the age of 25.

One of his fellow councillors, Jenny Backwell, was then running Brighton Housing Trust. She asked Andy if he would like a job in one of the housing projects, and he took it on. Two years later, despite having no qualifications, he applied for a senior position. This led to him managing BHT’s alcohol, drug, and mental health services for the next 15 years.

"We set up the most successful alcohol and drug rehab in the south of England," he says. "I loved working with people who had lived on the street, getting them into our projects and seeing their lives change for the better. And then often employing them. We set a target that we wanted 15 % of our staff to be former clients. At one point we got up to about 24 %. That’s one of the things I am most proud of."

Mostly, he says his education has come from talking with his clients. "I once used the street name of a drug and, as it came out of my mouth, I thought, you must sound like a complete and utter idiot. With my accent and my background, what do I know about street drugs?

"From that point onwards, I decided that I wouldn’t pretend to know anything, and I lived and learned from clients. I saw it as my role to try to articulate their experiences and their needs. I have always said I don’t understand drug use. I understand recovery and giving people hope and opportunities and a framework for life free from alcohol and drugs."

Despite their best efforts, it’s a sad fact that many of the charity’s clients still die from their addictions. And says: "Every year at our annual conference I put up a list of the names of clients we have lost. We feel it and we grieve for them."

When he carried out the research on deaths and pieced together the last few hours of people’s lives, he saw the same story over and over. "It was often around begging to get the money to buy the drugs. My clients said they used the money for drugs, not for accommodation. No one gets charged upfront for hostel accommodation in Brighton and Hove, but £20 easily can buy you a bag of heroin."

His advice is simple. "It’s hard to walk past someone shivering under a blanket, but I would encourage people to give the money to housing charities that can support people into accommodation, get them clean from their addictions, and get them into work. Having a job is the best thing. It gives people self-esteem."

Andy anticipates that giving up job will be a wrench. "I am going to miss it, but I do feel it’s the right time now to move on because it’s hard work and I am getting older. I’m in my 60s and there are still things I want to do, such as write a lot more and be more reflective.

"I hope I won’t regret it," he adds. "I am so grateful for the clients who have trained me and taught me just about everything they know because of their experiences, and who have been so incredibly generous with their time."