For World Homeless Day (10.10.21), we took the opportunity to chat to David Nugent, Chief Executive of Canopy housing.
“Working on our projects in this way gives people a sense of pride in the property, improves their sense of self-worth and confidence, and also gives them practical skills – from plastering to painting, from fitting insulation to joinery”.

Canopy Housing was formed in 1998 by a group of local people wanting to address the issue of derelict housing and homelessness in Leeds. The core of Canopy’s work, then and still now, is renovating long-term derelict or empty buildings, and providing quality homes for homeless people in the city. Canopy Housing currently manage around 80 properties in Leeds and they are exploring ways to expand their work into wider Yorkshire. As David explained:

“A small group of activists in Burley in Leeds managed to convince Leeds City Council to lease them some homes on a peppercorn rent. In return they were expected to renovate those homes and let them to people on the council waiting list. The money spent on renovation would be recovered through charging rent”.

What is the Self Help Model?

Canopy housing is a self-help housing initiative. In this model, people (in Canopy’s case, homeless people in Leeds) contribute to the renovation of their future home.

“We acquire long-term empty properties and refurbish them with the help of volunteers, who we train in construction skills as we go along. One of those volunteers is usually a homeless person who gets to move into the property on completion. We call them our ‘self-helper’””.

“Working on our projects in this way gives people a sense of pride in the property, improves their sense of self-worth and confidence, and also gives them practical skills – from plastering to painting, from fitting insulation to joinery”.

Moreover, working on a property prior to moving in (particularly when a tenant is moving to a new area) can help the future tenant build connections, friendships, and a sense of community. In many cases, these connections are an important factor in preventing people returning to unhealthy relationships or damaging environments.

“Our model works really well with domestic violence survivors” David told us.  “Most Domestic Violence survivors return to their abuser three times – usually because to escape them they have to move across the city, where they find they have no social bonds. The self-help model helps to break that cycle because it helps tenants establish social bonds before they move in”.

Canopy’s tenants

All the people who move into Canopy Housing properties have high priority need on the housing register. Most self-helpers bid for their home through Leeds’s choice-based lettings system.

“We advertise our houses through the Leeds Homes website.  We make it clear that applicants would have to commit to a few days of self-help before they move in… People who don’t want to do that don’t generally bid on them”.

There are also cases where people who are already volunteering with Canopy Housing find themselves with high housing needs. In these situations, Canopy will often request that they are allocated a property. David explained, “Some of the volunteers we work with have desperate housing need as well. If we work with someone who has volunteered with us on another self-helper’s house, we’ll approach the local authority and ask them to nominate directly.”

Volunteers and training for young people

Canopy Housing work with volunteers from a cross-section of the community in Leeds. They work with around 70 volunteers and 30 trainees each year. Some volunteer primarily as a mean to gain practical skills such as plastering, painting, decorating, or tiling; others are drawn by Canopy’s mission to provide high quality housing for homeless people.

“Our volunteers come from all sorts of backgrounds.  We have a handful of ex-tradespeople who want to pass their skills on to others; we work with young people – school leaver age – teaching them construction skills; we work with people with long-term mental health or social problems; and a lot of others who are simply wanting to give back to the community,” David explained.

David and the Canopy team have also been developing a training programme for young people, focussed on providing both practical skills and work-environment experience.

David continued, “We are looking to put about 40 young people through the formalised training programme we launched last year. This supports young people to go on site more often and provides classroom sessions where they can learn about manual handling, working at height, what it’s like to work on a site, hazardous substances… all sorts of things. We also provide them with careers advice and the practical experience of working with a diverse range of people. Successful graduates walk away with their own toolkit, overalls, boots and PPE.”

Acquiring properties and funding renovations

Since their inception in 1998, Canopy have maintained a very close relationship with Leeds City Council, who have leased Canopy many of their empty properties on a peppercorn rent.

“We couldn’t do what we do without the support of Leeds City Council; they are our biggest supporter. They give us grants to help refurbish the homes we buy and the initial five-year leases they gave us, after rolling over, were extended to 99 years a couple of years ago. This has given us the financial security we needed to grow further.”

Over the years, Canopy have also worked alongside numerous funders: Land Aid have been a persistent supporter; the likes of The Henry Smith Charity and Esmee Fairbairn have supported the volunteering programme; Power to Change and Big Issue Invest stepped in during the pandemic; and Yorkshire Building Society are now supporting the new training programme.

Two thirds of Canopy’s income these days comes from the rent they receive from the 80 properties they manage; all of which goes back into the volunteering and training programmes and renovating new houses.

The big challenges

Like most charities and community organisations, the funding challenge still looms large. Over the last year this has been exacerbated by “massively escalating house prices”.

“We used to be able to just go and get properties off Rightmove and there wasn’t much competition”, David told us. “Now there is a great deal of competition and prices have gone through the roof, making it more difficult for our model to stack up. It’s amazing how much local landlords are prepared to pay for derelict properties. Mind you, they don’t do anything like as much as we do to them before letting them out.”

Another problem that has come about during the pandemic is a “noticeable increase in social breakdown in the areas where we work, including racism and violence”.

“We’re seen as a ‘good actor’ in East Leeds, but if nobody is going in and out of our office ‘bad forces’ can move in…we’ve had to try to reassert ourselves since coming back. The streets do already feel safer than they did a few months ago”.

Green renovation

David, a keen environmentalist, is careful to ensure that Canopy’s activities are as environmentally sustainable as possible.

“It uses a lot less carbon and energy to retrofit an old house than build a new one” David explained.  “However, there are environmental issues with the materials that are commonly used for some of these retrofits”

“(At Canopy) we use wood fibre-board and lime-plaster. This means the walls are breathable, improving internal humidity, which results in less black mould. They also retain the heat better. It’s been nice to work with young people and teach them the skills of working with materials that aren’t being taught in the mainstream industry, yet”

The power of partnerships

David is acutely aware of the importance of building and nurturing Canopy’s relationships – with local authorities, funders, wider civil society, and, of course, with the community they serve.

“As well as the council, we work very closely with our near neighbours GIPSIL and LATCH and other groups who practise self-help models outside Leeds. We lobby together, we won’t compete over properties or try to steal volunteers from each other.  We also have good relationships with Basis Yorkshire, helping to rehouse sex workers, and Womens Aid – with whom we work to rehouse domestic violence survivors”.

He is incredibly positive about the collaborative mindset of civil society groups in Leeds. David himself sits on the boards of two other charities – GIPSIL Homes and The Cardigan Centre (themselves a Locality member). During the pandemic these connections enabled charities and community groups within the city to react in a coherent way. Canopy Housing, for example, lent vans and staff to other organisations who were delivering emergency food and medical supplies.

Working with Locality

Canopy housing have been a highly active member of Locality for many years. They have consistently contributed to Locality groups, actions and research, and in 2019 they even ran visits to their properties for delegates of the Locality Convention in Leeds.

“I’ve visited numerous places across the country and have been inspired by the work of other organisations”, said David.

“Not long after I arrived (at Canopy Housing) I ended up meeting the larger trusts group. This got me straight in with all the key players across the region. We share all sorts, ideas on lobbying, funding models, and making sure we’re not treading on each other’s toes”

“There is an inbuilt trust in the Locality network where we are comfortable sharing what went horribly wrong as well as what went well”

Most recently, Canopy have received some support from Locality with redeveloping their business plan. Through this process they gained the clarity they needed to decide to become a registered provider of social housing (RP).

Looking to the future

Deciding to become an RP is a big step for Canopy Housing, opening the door to major funding opportunities that could transform the services and support they can offer.

At the same time, David and his team are exploring avenues to expand their work beyond Leeds’ city limits.  David is very aware that this will involve working in different political environments where there may be less support from local councils, and in areas with different housing needs.

Ending homelessness

Although Canopy’s primary focus is on providing housing, David is clear that providing adequate housing will not in itself end homelessness.

“Tackling homelessness is about far more than bricks and mortar”, David told us. “The prevalent reason for homelessness is relationship breakdown, particularly for young people whose relationships with their parents, friends or peer network after leaving care can break down easily. Older people face similar problems when longer term relationships break down, which can mean one of them losing their home. These issues are exacerbated by poverty, unemployment and mental health, which can often mean drugs too. That, in turn, can lead to further relationship breakdowns and difficulties leading a stable life.”

For these reasons, much of the work Canopy do “around the edges” – from skills training to signposting to other specialist civil sector organisations is so important. Giving the people they work with a sense of community, a sense of self-worth, practical skills and the support they need to rebuild their lives.