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Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Wolverhampton visionary in the US

October 06 2011
 Soul legend Martha Reeves helps social entrepreneur set up in Motown


In 1984, a 21-year-old visionary by the name of Thomas Harvey-Berwick, rented a crumbling and dilapidated house in Wolverhampton, and used it as a base to house and feed local homeless people. This philanthropic venture eventually became the Fernbank Care in the Community project, a unique business which to this day provides supportive accommodation for homeless vulnerable adults with mental health issues. Harvey-Berwick successfully housed and moved hundreds of residents back into the community - a true ‘care in the community’ enterprise that began long before the term was universally adopted.

Now, almost 30 years later, he has taken his extensive talents to Cleveland, Ohio, where he has set up a business to tackle the chronic but seemingly needless homeless situation that exists in one of the richest countries in the world.

Although it has been his lifelong ambition, Harvey-Beswick’s move across the Atlantic was made possible only because of his association with an icon of popular music. “I’ve had a very long friendship with the legendary Martha Reeves [American R&B singer], who at one time in her life was a councillor in Detroit,” he explains with obvious affection. “She invited me over to do pieces of work as a consultant for a range of different services that she was trying to get off the ground in Detroit for the mentally ill and for veterans, people who had served their country.”

In his time in the States, Harvey-Berwick has noticed a number of similarities and differences between how the US and UK deal with homelessness issues. “The fact is the needs of people run parallel,” says Harvey-Berwick. “We have people that have issues with dependency, people who have issues with health - physical and mental. We have people who have issues with their life choices who need help in balancing them. All of these are issues similar to what you find in the UK.

“One of the differences is that in the UK there is a lot more choice. The US is a much younger country and some of the services are not as developed compared to standards in the UK. The UK has some very good care models that I know the Americans are very interested in and given time and the sharing of information, I think the UK, in turn, will be very interested in some of the services run in the US.”

“In the US there is a service called Section 8, which is similar to our housing benefit as it allows people who are on low incomes or on no incomes at all to gain housing. It helps people like veterans who have served their country and who don’t have housing. They may have a disability and have spent time in a local veterans’ hospital, which qualifies them for a voucher which is used to provide their housing.”

However, despite the strides that have seemingly been taken, Harvey-Berwick is often disappointed by the misconceptions about homelessness that prevail in the US: “The attitude that exists between the working people and vulnerable people makes it clear that a lot of educating still needs to be done. Some people, basically, can work but choose not to, but then there are people out there who are begging and it is real: it’s about being able to differentiate between what’s genuine and what is not.

“A lot of it is gut instinct, a lot of it is hit-and-miss. Sometimes we get it right for people and sometimes we don’t. The US is a far harsher environment: they don’t have the social state, they don’t have the capacity, but they do want to embrace methods used in the UK, so it’s a learning experience on both sides.”

Having battled for years with local authorities to run services for the homeless in Wolverhampton, Harvey-Beswick’s message to government, local or otherwise, is unequivocal: “We need our governments - in the UK and US - to look at individual services and to move away from allowing personal agendas and the politics of local government to influence how we look after homeless people.

“From a UK perspective, we need to be realistic. A lot of people come to the UK from all over the world, which is fantastic, but many have difficulties in managing the way that we live in this country. There is a lot of stress, which can sometimes cause health issues. We have great advantages for people with work, but we also have great disadvantages with people trying to get work. We have to ensure that there are enough services to help if things do break down.”

So after almost 30 years, what keeps Harvey-Berwick energised and engaged? “I have spent 27 years working in this service. I have used my own money, my own resources, my own sweat and my own blood in investing in trying to help the most vulnerable people and underprivileged people in society,” he says with pride.

“Doing this kind of work makes me remember where I came from. I was brought up in the care system. I was lost in the care system. I was abandoned in the care system. I was a child in the care system. This job makes me remember where the focus ought to be: with the people it serves.”