'I lost myself for five years'

6th June 2003 at 01:00
A charity in Bath is giving people the skills to break out of lives blighted by drugs and drink. Andrew Mourant reports

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."

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