Cambridge homes for homeless team composed of unsung heroes
After months of work at Waterbeach Barracks, the modular homes project, which will see six domestic living units for the homeless installed on church land near Newmarket Road, is nearing completion.
Not only is the scheme helping to give homeless people a new chance in life, it has also been generating work for construction workers and volunteers for the build at Waterbeach – including a former Royal Engineer.
The team was picked by New Meaning Foundation, the not-for-profit which designs the units. New Meaning is run by Bottisham-based John Evans whose goal has been to provide relatively low-cost homes for the homeless – the six units cost around £36,000 to build in total and are guaranteed for 50 years.
The units have been taking shape inside the 550sq m canvas hanger at the barracks since October. The first deadline to ship the homes to the Christ the Redeemer church land in Barnwell was mid-December – but there were teething problems.
By mid-November the testing-out process was under way on just three units. Having sweated the benchmarks, work on the following three units has been much swifter. With the construction team now including a painter-decorator, a plasterboarder and a carpenter, progress has picked up and a completion date is expected for the end of this month, whereupon they will be delivered to Newmarket Road.
The crew selected by New Meaning includes homeless people and people in challenging circumstances – and when it comes to challenging circumstances, David Muiruri is probably over-qualified.
David joined the Royal Engineers in 2005, did his training in Kent, and was posted to Waterbeach Barracks in 2007 with 39 Engineer Regiment, which provides engineering and technical support to both the British Army and the Royal Air Force.
“I became a qualified design draughtsman in the Army,” he says during a break in construction. “I designed these sorts of buildings, and this is a modern build – as much as I’ve seen the design on paper, this is an opportunity to see it through from design to construction. I can’t wait to see it go on site.”
David describes the barracks of RAF Waterbeach a decade ago as “a built environment” with workshops, accommodation, catering and good access. Logistics work could include being posted outside the UK – “they’d have equipment in secure compounds, it could be in Belize, Cyprus, the Falklands, and we’d have people deployed to assist them”.
The barracks was decommissioned in 2012 with the site sold for housing. David left the Army and was moved to council housing in Chittering with his wife and two daughters. A son followed a year later. Unfortunately, the marriage broke down.
“I had to leave the council house in Chittering as it was unsuitable,” he says. “My family broke up. Having paid the rent I was left with £80 to live on a week and running a three-bedroom house... it was impossible.”
When the council claimed back housing benefits for 2013/14, David’s finances worsened. He was treated for anxiety and depression. Incredibly, he also acquired a degree in structural engineering from London South Bank University.
“The authorities never made anything easier for me,” he says, adding that he was taken to court over payments twice. “Every time I presented myself to judges there was sympathy, but not from the council.”
That difficult time eased, however, with help from Paula Rae of South Cambridgeshire District Council and Cambridge City Council officer Liam Stewart. David currently lives in some former Royal Papworth Hospital staff accommodation and is looking for permanent work: he’s optimistic that his skill set in design and engineering will be put to good use.
His domestic arrangements, he says, are OK, although having to share a kitchen with eight others he experiences as an indignity. So far it has not been possible for his children – one of whom is at university – to visit. But he’s had it worse – when Universal Credit was introduced.
“You have to make choices,” he says of his interim years. “Heating, hot water or cooking. That used to kill me. That destroyed me, sitting in the house, in the room and the next thing I’m depressed, I need to see the GP, it overwhelms the system. I have to go and get medication. It overwhelms me, but I am jobseeking and it’s looking very positive for me.”
Getting taken on to help build the modular homes has been a massive step forward for David because it has allowed him to work with other people as a unit which, if you’re Army-trained, must be something you’d appreciate. David certainly knows his way round the inside and outside of the homes, which now have very solid-looking exteriors including roofs, fitted windows, electrics and partitions.
“Different trades have worked on the units,” he says. “Plumbers, electricians and volunteers like myself. I’m here when I get time to be here. I came across this project in a Waterbeach publication. There was an article about New Meaning and I read it and I thought I might be able to get a place on the team, so I spoke to John and he gave me the opportunity to join. Now I enjoy it.
“I have a good time is in this workshop, the rest of the time I have interviews or go to the JobCentre, which is interrupting the work I have here. I’ve made a lot of good friends, probably life friends, here.”
The team are proud of the work on the homes. David points to where the roof of the modular home slopes and adds that they can also be stacked.
“Look at the finish of these houses, they’re permanent homes for temporary locations, you could make them two-bedroomed if you wanted to reconfigure them. They’ll last 50 or 60 years.”
With stakeholders Jimmy’s, Allia Future Business Centre, Holy Cross and New Meaning in the mix, there’s a lot of excitement brewing about the next few weeks. The modular homes project is a first for Cambridge, and could help address the chronic housing inequalities in the city and indeed across the land.
And though David won’t be living in one – “I’d take it today, but I’m all right now, apart from the kitchen” – he’s delighted that the work will be helping other people.
“Hopefully we can help John have these units out of here by the end of January,” he concludes.
Cllr Hazel Smith, lead cabinet member for housing at South Cambridgeshire District Council, said: “I’m pleased to see the development of this project. Providing modern units for people to make a home in, and the training aspect of the project, are really positive. I’m always concerned to hear of anyone nearly or actually losing their home, and our focus is on helping to stop people from losing their homes in the first place.
“Early intervention is always the key to keeping people in their homes.”