In 2016, John Cassap, an Assertive Outreach Worker in Sunderland, visited America to learn about their responses to the crisis of homelessness, particularly in the wake of national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, and how their methods could be adopted and adapted to help the work Changing Lives does for people who are homeless. The research trip was funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust as John secured a scholarship from the organisation following a rigorous application process. Here, John details his experiences and shares his findings:

The whole adventure began when I was invited to the presentation of a friend who had travelled to Australia with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I was very inspired and I was encouraged by others to apply for it myself.

The purpose of the Fellowship is to gather information from abroad that is necessary and useful to the UK. This comes through the dissemination of a report that is based on your findings in that country. I returned to the UK in early 2016, and after a huge amount of work composing the report (which wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated assistance of my manager Helen Aitchison) it is now ready to share with you all.

After agreeing to take on this challenge, I spent a lot of hours researching places of interest and contacting services in the USA explaining what I was hoping to do to see if they could accommodate my visit. Once I had a rough plan and had made some contacts I began the online application process with the WCMT, which is a two-part process. The projects that interest the Trust complete a second application form to provide more detailed information.

I was thrilled to be invited to an interview in Westminster London following my application. One of the panellists was Winston Churchill’s grandson! My interview went very well and I knew when I came out that I couldn’t have done any better and that it was out of my hands, so I just forgot about it for a while.

Four weeks later I was overjoyed to receive a letter, saying that out of 1,009 applicants I was one of 150 who had been offered a Fellowship by the Trust.

So after finalising my itinerary – dates/times/locations – I set off on my travels.

After a long flight to New Orleans I was greeted at Louis Armstrong Airport by a friend I hadn’t met yet (Zach); he picked me up and took me to my Air B&B apartment (huge thanks to my amazing host, Maria Carvello) and introduced me to a group of “Mutual Friends”. They were amazing and treated me like a long lost friend, especially Dave who drove me to and from all of my appointments.

The food in the Big Easy was nothing short of incredible, I will never forget how good alligator tastes.

I had many site visits in New Orleans, with a highlight being getting frisked by the U.S Marshals when I tried to get through security into the Federal Building with my camera and dictaphone. I had to hide them in the street before being allowed in, and then Earl Randell who was chairing the meeting I was attending just told me to go get them and he carried them straight through with his security clearance. It was heavy drama.

I visited Ozanam Inn which is an excellent establishment that re-empowers homeless people, in their own time, to regain their self-esteem and reintegrate into society. I met with Tara Johnson Brown of the City of New Orleans’ Planning and Resources Department, and enjoyed food at Liberty’s Kitchen, which provides culinary training for disadvantaged youths, as well as education and health care.

At Sacred Heart Apartments I met with Darren, who after spending 15 years living on the streets had secured a home of his own. Sacred Heart is a Veterans-only project. Darren was so proud to show me his self-sufficient little flat.

I attended the Municipal Court, which holds a session for homeless people who have been arrested that week and formulates plans to help them address their issues. They must return each week with their support worker and give the court an update. On my visit, the Judge called me to the bench and we had a very light hearted conversation and a firm handshake – I’ve spent many times in front of a Judge but this was a very unique and pleasant experience for a change.

After New Orleans came Fresno in Northern California. Things took a turn for the worse out there and I made a decision to return home for the short term. Looking back I’m really glad it happened the way it did: it forced me to confront a few things about myself that I probably had been putting off for quite some time.

A few months later I was off to New York City. I had been there twice before, and have plans to go again soon for a holiday. It’s a city I feel I know well and I love the vibe of the place.

Again I had a full itinerary: visits to disadvantaged youth projects, homeless Veteran-specific projects, meetings with Government officials, street outreach, Drug & Alcohol detox projects, along with a few others.

Like New Orleans, the support and fellowship of “Mutual Friends” was nothing short of incredible, I met some amazing human beings, and likewise the food was an absolute joy as those who read my blogs will understand how much I was indulging.

Read John’s full report and experiences of his trip to America here.

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