How Leeds's Joanna Project gave one woman hope

Niall Carson/PA Wire.
Niall Carson/PA Wire.

After 25 years of family life, few women would expect to find themselves homeless, wandering the streets of Leeds without friends, shelter or any hope for the future.

But one woman, who spoke to the Yorkshire Evening Post on the condition of anonymity, has revealed how her “groundhog day” life of drug-taking and instability came to a head when she was evicted from her home, losing all she knew.

“How many times I wanted to kill myself was unreal,” she said. “I thought, I’ve got no friends, no family, my kids hate me.”

However, this all began to change when she came into contact with the Joanna Project, a Leeds-based service helping a range of vulnerable women across the city.

With its help she has gained friends, supporters and, ultimately, a sense of hope which few living on the streets are able to access.

The YEP tells her story today as part of its ongoing series about homelessness and associated issues in our city.

When she was 15 and taking drugs, ‘Helen’ met her partner and had the first of her three children a year later.

“I’d never held a baby in my life, and all of a sudden I had one,” she said.

Over the course of more than 20 years, Helen and her partner went through the motions of family life while gripped by drug addiction, and each was in and out of jail for crimes such as theft. In 2015, she had enough and decided to get out of her situation.

She said: “It was just Groundhog Day because we were both doing it [drugs]. It ended up dragging me down.”

But the break-off was complicated, and she had a number of aggressive stand-offs with her partner over their home and children.

“Seven times they removed me from the property in the end,” she said. “Everyone was screaming at me and shouting at me. It was a really tense time.

“The police said: ‘We can ask the children to pick’. Police asked the children: ‘Do you want mum or dad?’”

One of her daughters went into care, and Helen found herself homeless for around a month.

During this period, she would sleep in a Costa coffee outlet at Leeds General Infirmary.

“I didn’t feel safe. I sort of felt safe in the hospital, even though there was not many people about,” Helen said.

But in the morning, she would have hours to wait before a breakfast club opened at Mabgate Mills.

She added: “I’d spend four hours just walking around town. I didn’t have any money for a drink.

“I used to just stand in Trinity at stupid o’clock just looking at the lights,” she said.

There was also a period of sofa-surfing, but because this was at the homes of other addicts it was not helping Helen’s situation.

She was soon living at Oakdale House, a supported living complex for single women.

“I went there and had a really good experience,” said Helen.

The support staff were very good, and she was beginning to gain some stability.

“It’s not just about homelessness and mental health or addiction I suffered with,” she said. “Sometimes you just need someone to talk to.

“There needs to be another Oakdale. You can talk about all the women’s stuff you don’t want to talk about in front of men.”

But when this was no longer available for her, she lived in a string of other supported housing sites as she still does today.

Having re-established contact with her daughters, the three of them now sleep in one room at their home, she said.

But she does not work, and said: “At the moment I can’t move forward with my life.”

During the chaotic time in her life, she also suffered a breakdown and was told she had an “explosive personality trait”. Tackling her mental health has been a priority over the last few years, but professional support is costly and hard to come by.

Through outreach workers, however, she was made aware of the Joanna Project.

The small charity is based in south Leeds, offering vulnerable women a chance to meet, socialise and take up holistic support to try and get back on their feet.

Helen said: “The people who work here are amazing. You could’ve used drugs and spent all your money and it’s not like they get on your case.

“It’s just like home when you come here. You have a cry and a cuddle and feel better.”

The project offers her a social life, she said, because it is hard to make friends.

She added: “If it was not for the Joanna Project I would be dead.”

Helen would like to see more funding go towards such charities and homelessness support in general.

She thinks more spaces dedicated to women, similar to those at Oakdale House, need to be on offer and more awareness raising needs to be done the subject of homelessness in prisons, police stations and similar environments.

“When I was homeless, I didn’t have a clue about Oakdale,” she said.

Although she sometimes still takes drugs and admits she is “not 100 per cent”, Helen is considering a future helping women who have gone through experiences such as her own.

She said: “I’d like to put a bit back, because I’ve had lots of help from people in the Joanna Project.”

The Joanna Project works with “vulnerable, hard to reach” women who are trapped by addictions.

They come from various backgrounds and are often sex workers.

The charity helps tackle the exploitation and danger that such lifestyles involve.

It works alongside other charities such as Team Challenge Leeds and Basis Yorkshire.

The Joanna Project is also part of Leeds’s Homelessness Charter, a set of principles and actions that are being put together by many different participants, with a focus on “lived experience”.