'I lost myself for five years'
The vicious circle of drugs and drink leading to homelessness or prison is depressingly familiar. One constant among those caught up in it is a lack of basic skills. In the heart of Georgian Bath - a city that has long attracted people on skid row seeking crumbs of comfort - a new approach is being taken.
An independent charity, Drugs and Homeless Initiative, has set up a unit in the heart of a city to give tutoring to those whose lives have been blighted by substance abuse.
The core literacy and numeracy programmes are provided by a partner body, the Bath and North East Somerset adult and community education team. But whatever the learning request, the unit tries to find a tutor. City of Bath college taster courses are on offer that could lead to full-time education.
Courses in anger management and confidence building are also available.
These are early days but the response is enthusiastic. An afternoon information technology session - at premises in Milsom Street once occupied by the Royal Photographic Society - attracts around a dozen people. Among them are Scott Barr, 25, and James Simmons, 23. Scott is fighting to stay off the bottle; and James to rebuild his life after extensive drug use and a conviction for dealing.
"Computers were just coming in when I was at school - I had no skills whatsoever," says Scott, who has worked as a chef and an unskilled electrician.
"Finding the confidence to come through this door was a big thing. I'm trying to fill my days up as best as possible."
James, who came to Bath from Surrey - "I did a performing arts course then lost myself for the next five years" - has mapped out a recovery plan. "I'm now living in a dry house," he says. "I'm on a foundation course in music at Bath College and would then like to do a BTec."
Another habitual user, Simon, jailed three times in seven years, has progressed from IT tuition to a full-time college personal fitness trainer course.
The unit hopes to keep ex-offenders such as Simon and James away from crime by making them more employable and filling their days with useful activities.
"Studies show a large percentage of offenders lack basic skills - 80 per cent have the writing ability of an 11-year-old," says Michael Lynch, a drug worker at the unit. "This about breaking the link between crime and drug misuse."
It is vital to be in the heart of Bath. "If people had to take a bus out of the city they wouldn't come," he says. The premises are ideal - with space for anything from computing, to massage - but a short tenancy makes long-term planning difficult. Funding bodies include Bath and North East Somerset Council, the Department for Health and the Medlock Charitable Trust, established by a firm of Bath engineers.
The starting point must always be the willingness of clients to improve their lot, says DHI director Rosie Phillips - though she recognises this will not always be a smooth upward curve.
The charity has 19 staff but few are dyed-in-the-wool social workers. "I think that helps," says Ms Phillips, whose first job was in PR. "Among the team we've an ex-printer and someone who used to be in bomb disposal.
"When people see they get tangible help from us - for example with decorating - they're more likely to become engaged."