Established in 2010, registered charity The Matthew Tree Project (TMTP) has served as a lifeline for those facing hardship and instability since it first opened its doors to the people of Bristol. Having never turned an individual or family away, its founder Mark Goodway knows the value of TMTP’s ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme for those who need it the most. Starting off as a humble food bank and a listening ear and turning into an all-encompassing support service, the programme has been invaluable for Bristol’s most deprived communities and remains central to efforts to tackle homelessness and poverty. We spoke to Mark to find out how the pioneering ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme is changing lives across the city, and building a better world for its most disadvantaged.
How big a problem is homelessness and poverty in the Bristol area?
Tens of thousands of working people in Bristol are trapped in poverty, with some 54,000 households living below the breadline according to TUC South West. The trade union looked at homes where at least one adult was working and found that there are now 600,000 people living in poverty in the wider South West. That means that around 18% of working people in the region are struggling to survive on their income.
Deprivation data released last year shows that 41 areas in Bristol are in the most deprived 10% across England, three of which were in the most deprived one per cent. 15% of Bristol’s residents – 70,400 people – live within these 41 areas, including 18,900 children and 7,900 older people. 19.7% of children under 16 in the city live in low-income families, which is significantly higher than the national average of 17.2%. Many more people experience fuel poverty and are considered to be ‘food insecure’.
Where homelessness is concerned, the data may only show the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t include people sleeping in unsafe buildings or sofa-surfing. The vast majority of homeless people will sleep rough only when they have no other options, although the figure is still at an all-time high with 82 people rough sleeping on any given night in Bristol. As of March 2019, there were 521 homeless households that Bristol City Council had a statutory duty to house.
TMTP’s ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme is targeted at the vulnerably housed – those at risk of becoming homeless – and intervenes early to prevent this from happening. 63.3% of the individuals and families joining the programme in 2019 were at risk of homelessness at the point of referral.
What progress has The Matthew Tree Project made in helping individuals rebuild their lives?
TMTP has grown from operating one ‘Rebuilding Lives’ Support Centre in 2010 to running five in 2020, all of which are located in the most deprived areas of Bristol and South Gloucestershire. In the early days we would run as a food bank and a listening ear. Whilst this was beneficial, it was limited in what it was able to achieve for people in crisis.
We are now able to deliver a professional food service that provides weekly nutritionally balanced groceries, 51% of which are five-a-day foods. By the end of 2019, the food service was distributing the equivalent of 8,000 meals a week, free of charge at the point of delivery. Clients are referred to the programme because they are penniless, and this approach removes the issue of affordability.
Our ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme offers those at risk of hardship advice, advocacy and support which matches their personal circumstances. The aim is to look at the issues that people face and the underlying causes, and help them to draw from these personal experiences to build on their skills. Creating a welcoming environment and involving ‘lived-experience’ volunteers are also effective, practical ways to improve support and make people feel at ease.
The programme is now highly effective at empowering people to take control of their lives, and to rebuild healthier, happier, more dignified and self-sufficient futures. This is achieved by enabling people to address the sources of their crisis, improve their health and wellbeing, set – and work towards – personal goals, make decisions about the support they receive, and help shape the ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme that is supporting them.
We also give them a voice to influence policymakers, helping them to create a systemic environment that is conducive to the quality of life of those in deprived communities. TMTP is now a nationally recognised pioneer in systemic approaches for the alleviation of poverty, being selected as a best practice representative in The Parliamentary Review in 2020 and being one of only 69 projects in the National Lottery’s £33 million ‘Help Through Crisis’ programme.
In 2019, the ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme provided 13,316 support sessions to 1,109 people. On average, it took 16 weeks for clients to move from crisis point to a place of independence where they no longer need the support of the charity. The programme is highly effective, and people report positive outcomes such as feeling happier (61.5%); more confident (64.4%); less isolated (36.9%); having improved money management (40%); learning new skills (33.8%); becoming healthier (60%); improved school performance of children (26.2%); and eating better (80%).
Who can benefit from your range of services and programmes?
The ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme created by TMTP is available to anyone who find themselves in crisis. No one – no ethnic group, no crisis type, no postcode, and no age group – is excluded from access to the programme. All beneficiaries are referred to and treated as ‘clients’ who are in control of the process they are entering into with us.
We currently have an extensive network of more than 90 officially appointed referral agencies across the region, which includes statutory and voluntary organisations such as local councils, advice agencies and schools, all of whom can refer anyone to the programme. We also accept self-referrals, and in the 10 years that we have been in operation we have never turned anyone away.
What advice would you offer to those thinking about getting in touch?
We would encourage anyone who is struggling to contact us as soon as possible. The earlier we are able to intervene, the easier it is to straighten things out. It is a great privilege to be able to help people in the way that we do, and we believe that everyone is remarkable and capable of achieving great things. Our social change model is built on the fundamental belief that people are our nation’s greatest asset and every individual has something to offer and a life’s purpose.
How important is it to offer compassion and remove the stigma attached to those suffering from hard times?
A compassionate, non-judgemental approach is absolutely critical if we want to help people to achieve sustainable, transformational change. People only fully engage in an open and honest way when they feel that they are in a safe, secure and supportive environment. This level of engagement is the key factor in the effectiveness of the ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme.
What ways can people help and support The Matthew Tree Project?
Securing funding is the biggest challenge we face. It costs over £500,000 per year to deliver the ‘Rebuilding Lives’ social change model in Bristol and South Gloucestershire, but the regular, monthly giving of supporters provides a steady income and helps us to plan our care. Equally, larger one-off donations are very welcome, and we have received gifts of up to £25,000 in the past.
Some people organise fundraising events either personally or through their employer, and these events heighten awareness of the issues as well as yielding much needed funds. Volunteering is also vital, and throughout 2019 our amazing volunteers gave a staggering average of 405 hours per month to enable this work to happen. Without volunteers we simply would not be able to do what we do. This opportunity is open to anyone, as full training and ongoing supervision is provided.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I do not believe that poverty is an inevitability to be accepted. On the contrary, it is absolutely clear that we have the means to end poverty if we choose to do so, and create a world where no-one is living in deprived slums, disadvantaged by limited life choices. The Matthew Tree Project is determined to work tirelessly to make this vision a reality, and we welcome anyone who would like to join us in this challenge.
For more information about TMTP and their ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme, to self-refer, or seek support for an at-risk individual, visit www.the-matthew-tree-project.org or call 0117 966 8071.
Reported outcomes for those who have completed the ‘Rebuilding Lives’ programme:
more confident (64.4%)
less isolated (36.9%)
improved money management (40%)
learning new skills (33.8%)
becoming healthier (60%)
improved school performance of children (26.2%)
eating better (80%)