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Interview: Chris Fields CEO, St George’s Crypt

22 July 2022

‘I’ve seen young people who’ve needed us time and time again. It’s difficult not to love them a little more’

I had a calling to help the helpless. The calling was clear in outline, but not in detail; so I applied to St George’s Crypt to work with young people leaving care.

St George’s Crypt is a Christian-based charity established in 1930 by the Revd Don Robins to alleviate poverty, hardship, and homelessness in and around Leeds.

I had had wide experience working with young people, but I didn’t have housing-related skills; so I was offered the role of managing the drinkers’ hostel instead. Make of that what you will. . . From there, I became manager of two hostels; then ops manager over all services; and eventually CEO.

Before all that, I was a catering manager, working with one of the world’s largest catering companies, managing some of their larger contracts. I wasn’t in any way prepared for what a “wet” hostel would look like, or how it would run, but I was trained in a four-star hotel in Leeds. Respect, acknowledgement, and understanding the needs of each customer was embedded in my DNA. My Christian faith was integral to that.

What surprised me most was the lack of joined-up thinking of all the organisations supposedly working towards the same goals. That’s changed for the better in my 23 years. Also the deep, deep hurt carried by the residents — hurt from families shunning them, guilt for causing it, and the hopelessness they felt.

That steered me towards the rehabilitation project we have today: long and gentle, with a mirror held towards each person to help them reflect on, and understand, the path chosen.

As well as accommodating the rough-sleepers, we now work with, and accommodate, people in addiction in two separate projects. “Growing Rooms” offers a full 15- to 18-month residential rehabilitation programme, including cognitive therapy, volunteering, and help in finding employment. “Nurture” is a full, outside catering company, where ex-service-users are trained in catering and hygiene, and employed.

Our latest partnership is with Leeds City Council, assisting with the issues around the pandemic. We’ve been running hotels with individual accommodation facilities to ensure that people could have safe bed space throughout the pandemic and further into the future.

Our latest build is 24 high-end flats, called Don Robins House. It certainly was an eye-opener for me. The obstacles and the hard slog of funding shows the real reason why so few new-builds are being undertaken for the vulnerably housed. Basically, it’s really hard work, and much easier to build for people with secure incomes and stable lives.

Within a week, we had 75 people on the waiting list.

The most rewarding part of the job is seeing life come back into someone’s eyes, as things start to get better. I see that as a reflection of all the love shown and given. Cheesy, but true.

The most difficult thing is when someone is on a path of destruction with no intent on changing. Life is all about choices. We can suggest, cajole, and plan, but, if they’re intent on following that path, we have to say goodbye and God bless, until next time. It breaks my heart every time, especially if they’re especially young with everything to live for.

Unless, as a society, we decide to change drugs law, unemployment, and the benefits system, plus make a sea-change in reliance on the State, we don’t see our services being diminished in the near future. With the state of the economy, the fallout from Covid, and a global recession, it’s probably going to be needed all the more.

The relationship between the Crypt and the Church as a body needs to be closer and more cohesive than ever before. Churches and the Crypt have always had a close and loving relationship. This needs to continue as churches become more of a respite for the poor and needy, with foodbanks and assistance services in churches becoming more common. Plus, we need to pray together and share good practice in helping those brought to our doors.

Our relationship with statutory services is currently very healthy, and needs to be nurtured and grown. We have skills and experience, with the added ingredient of faith and love for our brothers and sisters. There’s no hiding from the difficulties in a faith organisation’s working closely with a council; but if policies are fair and strong and we walk the Gospels, all is good.

Getting to know our clientele is a complex task. Some just pass through, and by the time you get to know them they’re gone. Some who live in our residences are known to us for a reasonable amount of time, and a rich relationship is often forged, especially with our Growing Rooms cohort. They live with us for up to 18 months, and volunteer and work alongside us; so we share the ups and downs of life.

Some people naturally become imprinted on your heart. I’ve seen young people, some third-generation Crypt clients, who’ve needed us time and time again. Life can be incredibly cruel, unfair — and being born into a life of poverty really doesn’t help children climb out of the mire. They try and fall, try and fall, until giving up and accepting life as it is seems their only option. It’s difficult not to love them a little more.

One young man was from a family known to all services. He was caught up in drugs and alcohol, stealing from everyone he knew — including the lovely night-stop volunteers with whom he often stayed. He did really well and found a really nice girlfriend, settled down and had a couple of kids, had a job and a car. Five years later, he turns up at our lunch service looking terrible. For some reason, he’d taken to drink again, and was back to square one. Tragic.

My first and strongest experience of God was deciding to change my life completely and start in this job. I had no experience, knew no one in the Crypt, had never looked after alcoholics before. Yet I had an inner strength, and heard a voice telling me I was the person he wanted. Scary and exhilarating at the same time. Life-changing. . .

Working in such a busy, varied, and ecumenical environment has only strengthened my relationship with God. The power of forgiveness never fails to knock me for six. The need to walk the Gospels alongside those who society has written off or who are hurting beyond human endurance is a real privilege, and my faith has enabled me to stay here for so long. Without a strong belief in God, and the power of love, this job would be a labour of Hercules. With it, it’s a labour of love.

Retirement’s looming. My one quest in my working life is to leave the charity stronger than I took it over, with a portfolio of properties to house the homeless. We’ve achieved great things with the recent developments, and this needs to continue.

I’ve been really blessed with a loving marriage and two wonderful lads. I just want to be a granddad!

Injustices which would be so simple to change make me angry. I understand politics and the complexities of government, but the waffle just drives me insane. I often say I’m going to start the Yorkshire Commonsense Party.

Blue skies, happy people, bees, children’s laughter, fresh pizza make me happy.

I’m blessed and cursed with waking early. I set off for work very early, and often hear the dawn chorus. It’s simply blissful, and God’s choir tells me that everything will be OK.

There’s a huge amount of good in people. I don’t believe that someone wakes up and says: “I am going to be evil today.” Life happens, and bad choices are made. Society needs to reflect on that. Good will always overcome bad, so that gives me hope.

A lot of the time, I pray for people to see the other side of the coin. If more of us did that, the world would be a more peaceful place. I also pray for those hurting. It’s a lonely place, and pain is real — physical and emotional.

I’d like to be locked in a church with St Cuthbert, because of his ability to withdraw and meditate as well as act positively within a political environment and lead his Order. He’d be a great companion to pray and worship with.


Chris Fields was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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