2 November 2001

MORE THAN TEA AND SYMPATHY

We all sympathise with the plight of the homeless.

One East Sussex farmer goes rather further than that,

as Simon Vevers reports

MARTIN Tebbutt seems an unlikely champion of the aspirations of homeless people. His 485ha (1200-acre) farm in East Sussex is a world away from the demoralising plight of those in inner cities without a roof over their heads or a family to support them.

Yet, over the last seven years, his organic farm near Lewes has become a haven of hope for groups of men, many with severe drink problems, who have made the twice-weekly pilgrimage down to help with planting and harvesting vegetable crops and even help with sheep-shearing.

The project linking Mr Tebbutts Boathouse Farm and the Bondway Housing Association shelter in Lambeth, which is funded by the government Rough Sleepers Unit, has just won an award for innovation in helping the homeless from the London Housing Unit.

Mr Tebbutt was first approached back in 1994 by Bondway resettlement worker Heather Collins who wrote to about 100 farms asking if they would let men from the Vauxhall shelter lend a hand with farming chores. Mr Tebbutt, who runs the farm with his father and brother, had no hesitation in offering his support.

&#42 Something positive

"It seemed to me straight away that it was something positive that I would like to get involved in. Its amazing how quickly lives can fall to pieces because people get trapped in a vicious circle of desperation which they find hard to escape from. I think a lot of farmers are going to find this out over the next couple of years."

He believes that the government is sanguine over the prospect of a quarter of all farmers being forced out of business. "When all youve known and done is work for 80-100 hours a week on a farm and then have nothing to do, then problems are going to arise. So its natural to empathise with people facing the same situation."

Mr Tebbutt, who greets the homeless workforce on Tuesday and Thursday mornings in the summer months before they set to work, says their relationship is symbiotic. He explains: "Its good for us, we really appreciate what they do, and I know that it has a positive impact on their lives."

Pat Stewart has no doubt about that. He was coming to the farm regularly twice a week when five years ago Mr Tebbutt asked him to work full-time. Since then he has lived in a mobile home on the farm, become a valued part of Mr Tebbutts workforce and left his troubled past behind him.

"I was a heavy drinker and spent eight years on the streets before I got involved in this farm project. Now I can say that it has turned my life around and Im so grateful. Without this help Im certain that I would be back on the streets."

The Tebbutt farm, which also boasts a shop selling organic farm produce, comprises beef, sheep and a range of cereal and vegetable crops. The Bondway workers have helped with planting and harvesting the vegetables and Mr Tebbutt believes this has been particularly therapeutic. "They plant seeds, watch them grow and come to fruition and theres a great sense of satisfaction in that."

Frances Smyth, who co-ordinates the farm project at the Bondway, says that each visit represents a triumph for many of the men as they are obliged to abstain from alcohol. This is not simply for the sake of their health, but also because of the safety implications on the farm. "Once they know they can control their drinking some of them are ready to take the next step towards recovery and go on to detox programmes."

As she joined in to weed a field of cabbages near Plumpton Race Course, Ms Smyth said being part of a team and getting back to nature were key elements in this process of rehabilitation. "Getting away from the city and all their problems and out into the fresh air gives these men a purpose in life and helps to build their self-esteem," she says.

Danny Quinn, a 49-year-old former residential care worker, lost both his mother and sister to cancer within a three-month period and then suffered cancer of the throat himself. Now in remission and having been resettled in his own flat with the help of the Bondway, he reckons working on the farm has helped him put his life back together. Although the Bondway men receive £5 for each visit, Mr Quinn insists: "Its not a question of money. The reward is inside. Mr Tebbutt treats us like family and for some, who dont have any family, that is important."

&#42 Return to work

Mr Quinn , who hopes to return to work as a carer, now helps with the soup runs to the homeless and plans to help Crisis at Christmas, the charity which provides the homeless with shelter, food and friendship over the festive season.

Mr Tebbutt rounded off the summer visits with a barbecue to thank the men for their dedication and to show his appreciation for their help. "They went back to London loaded up with potatoes, sweetcorn and carrots which they had helped to plant and harvest. Weve planted something here with this project and watched it grow into something which has benefited many people who were caught in a terrible spiral. Theres huge satisfaction in doing that."

Above: Pat

Stewart, once homeless, now living and working full time on the farm. Below: Danny Quinn says working at the farm helped him put his life back together.

Martin Tebbutt (right) with homeless workers on his farm before they start work. Right: The homeless workforce comes to do farm work twice a week in summer.