A project at the University of Chichester is transforming the lives of homeless people by empowering them with the confidence and skills to apply for degree courses.
The pioneering initiative, which is the first of its kind in the UK, helps students without necessary qualifications to learn new skills and bridge the gap to higher education.
There are now more than 320,000 homeless people in Britain, according to Shelter, with those living on the streets twice as likely to develop mental health conditions.
Among the university cohort is Lucy D, who started living sleeping rough at just 12 years of age, before falling into addiction.
Now, at the age of 30, she is about to start a fine art degree.
Speaking about the university project, she said: “It gives us the confidence to start a degree.
“We cover subjects from critical thinking, different learning styles, referencing and essay writing, to gain the tools to move forward to university.”
Lucy is one of ten students, all homeless and mostly recovering from addiction, who have applied to university after enrolling on the ten-week course at Chichester, led by its institute of education, health, and social sciences.
The course has been created in collaboration with West Sussex homeless charities Stonepillow, with bases in Chichester and Bognor, and the Bognor Housing Trust to develop and assess academic skills to ensure students are ready for the first year of study.
The module, which has been backed by the Office for Students, utilises the students’ lived experiences to develop academic reading, writing and research skills, self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-belief.
Honest and insightful links are made between themes like emotional intelligence, reflective practice, decision-making skills, critical thinking – and past, often painful, experiences.
Senior lecturer Becky Edwards, from the University of Chichester’s department of childhood, social work, and social care, developed the project to help reduce barriers to higher education.
“Being intelligent and being educated are not synonymous,” she said.
“Some of the most intelligent people in the UK are living in poverty, both economically and aspirationally.
“They’ve not been privileged enough, lucky enough, or supported enough to access good education.
“Going to university is simply something they’d never have considered – this gives us the chance to change that.”
Latest figures by charity Crisis show homelessness has increased by 60 per cent since 2012, creating a modern-day diaspora with no clear pathway back into society.
For this vulnerable group, with complex needs ever exacerbated by barriers to basic services like housing, health, employment and benefits, attending university is low on the list of aspirations and fraught with extra challenges.
Student Mike T lived on the streets of Bognor Regis for more than three months after losing a job he had for ten years.
The 31-year-old, who is now a resident at Stonepillow, will start a full-time degree in English and creative writing in 2020.
He said: “This is not just an opportunity for us to go to university, but to change the way that people view us, and make sure we are not defined by our past experiences.
“We all have a willingness to learn, and to learn what we can, so that we don’t go back to the lives we once had.”
The Chichester project has been highlighted as one of the country’s most prolific health and wellbeing initiatives by national body Universities UK, to underline the value of higher education beyond economic impact.
Stonepillow CEO Hilary Bartle said: “Homelessness can affect anyone at any time and it’s not just about not having a home but about all different aspects of your life imploding at the same time.
“We look at the holistic person and help them back onto the pathway to independence.”
For more about the University of Chichester project, including how to get involved, go to www.chi.ac.uk/socialwork.
More about West Sussex homeless charity Stonepillow is available at https://stonepillow.org.uk and details of the Bognor Housing Trust at www.bognorhousingtrust.org.uk.