“Anyone anywhere can find a way out of the darkness”

David Tapper

I had the privilege of sitting down with David Tapper, Trustee of Streetwise Opera and Senior Substance Misuse Practitioner at The Wellbeing Hub in Nottingham. He told me a bit about the brilliant work the Hub does and why he’s proud to be part of it.

RW: Tell us a little bit about the Wellbeing Hub and what makes it different from other services in a similar space.

DT: For many years in Nottingham, we’ve had a drug and alcohol service for people, but prior to 2013 these were separate services. When we started the Wellbeing Hub, we brought the drug and alcohol services together in a joint partnership. What makes what we do unique is that within the building, we have around 150 staff working across 8 to 10 different services. We’re in the heart of Nottingham so people can access us easily, and within this building we have a mental health team, a benefits team and an academy where people can access education, including dyslexia screenings – so once people have shared their situation with us, we don’t need to direct them to a whole range of other places or services in order to support them. Our name, the Wellbeing Hub, doesn’t carry the same stigma as a drug and alcohol service, and we’re good at ensuring anonymity if that’s what people want – the building is open at night three times a week, and people have the option of doing phone consultations too.

RW: How long have you been working for the Wellbeing Hub and what drew you to work there?

DT: I’ve been working here since 2013 and this was my first job in over 20 years. Before that, I was in active addiction – I was in and out of prison and I wasn’t able to see my kids. At the age of 41, I realised that that I couldn’t carry on any longer and went to rehab. When I was there, I followed a 12-step process that meant I could build confidence and self-esteem – it broke me down and put me back together. I accessed Streetwise Opera in 2009 and stayed there for 10 or 11 months. In that time we did a big production which really made me feel part of something. This was incredibly important for me – all I’d ever wanted to was to feel like I fitted in – to society, to my family. One of things rehab showed me was that I had an illness – it was a relief to hear that, because I’d thought of myself as a terrible person who wasn’t able to get clean for my kids.

In rehab, I did the whole programme, followed by supported accommodation and then my own flat. My kids started coming to visit me at the weekends, and I started volunteering. The rehab I’d attended offered me a paid role for a year, alongside training on a Level 3 Health & Social Care course. Whilst I was there, someone told me about this job and suggested I go for it. The interview made me laugh – I hadn’t done an interview for over 20 years, and I talked at 100 miles an hour, wanting it over and done with. When they offered me the job, I was shocked; but they told me what came through was my passion and my people-to-people skills, which was lovely feedback to hear.

The reason I have a passion for this work is because of my own story and family background. My mum’s from Leicester and was a working girl on the streets, and I only met my dad once. I used to talk about this with anger, and played the victim for many years. Now, I have empathy and I understand the cards my mum was dealt. I’ve been through a process of forgiveness, of both myself and my mum. That’s why I’m passionate – there are a lot of people in the same situation as my mum who don’t know where to go, and the Wellbeing Hub is a safe place to expose whatever it is that’s unmanageable in your life.

RW: What does a really good day look like for you, and what gets you up each morning?

DT: In all the years that I’ve worked in this profession, I continue to grow and to learn from my colleagues. We’ve got a good balance in the Hub of people who’ve never been in addiction as well as people like myself who continue to stay connected to recovery. What gets me up in the mornings is that I truly believe that anyone anywhere can make a new life for themselves and find a way out of the darkness. That could be domestic violence, substance misuse or mental health challenges, and, as a practitioner, it can take a lot of patience and tolerance if someone is spitting and shouting and crying in the middle of that process. We understand that as a service and know that, at any moment, something might change internally for that person. My experience of support services was that I was always told what to do, and this didn’t work for me. Here at the hub, we’re a vehicle and it’s up to our service users to tell us where they want to go, so they can take ownership of both the successes and the challenges.

RW: How did the Wellbeing Hub adapt to the challenges of the pandemic?

DT: The pandemic was something that, as human beings, we’ve never experienced before, and what I learned over the past two and a half years has been massive. When everything shut down, we kept our doors and services open with a skeleton staff. What we realised is that even though everything stopped, our service users still needed our support. I work for the criminal justice side of the organisation; the people who were being released from prison were emerging into a world that they’d never seen before. They came to us and they were able to get support and signposting, and it was quite special to be a part of that process.

RW: And finally, what do you think is the most common misconception of homelessness that most people in society hold?

DT: The way I look at it is: you could see a man or a woman sitting on a bench, with no teeth and a brown bag with a bottle in it, and think ‘what a mess’. Everyone makes those kinds of snap judgements in our society – we all do this every day. What I’ve realized is that there are days where I feel the same way that that person looks – but because I’m suited and booted, other people can’t tell. We have to understand that this is not an external issue.

I think that society in general is more aware now, and we don’t ignore homelessness like we used to. There are lots of organisations that provide support, like churches or volunteer shops. What we need to realise is that this could happen to any one of us on any given day. Homelessness doesn’t happen overnight – a person doesn’t suddenly wake up and decide to become homeless. There’s a progression, and that progression could begin for any one of us; it’s why the decisions that we make around wellbeing are so important. When I look at people in that situation, I know it’s not what I see. You have to ask yourself – why are they on the streets? It’s usually because they feel safer on the streets than in a hostel or a care home – we’ve heard some awful stories about what’s happened to some of these people when they are in the care of someone else. The Wellbeing Hub provides care and support, but because we’re a service, people can struggle to come and access us because of their past experiences with services. We do frontline street work – something I used to do when I started here – to help us engage with people as best we can.

My experience of going through Streetwise Opera and being part of that community over the course of a year was unique; it’s an experience that as a service we will never be able to offer. Whilst housing is obviously important, for some people, it doesn’t matter if you get them a home if they’re not able to cope internally. We need to understand why that is and what we can do about it. That’s my hope – that we’re able to provide some bigger houses, get people off the streets and give them the tools to support themselves. Ultimately, it’s the internal stuff that counts – it’s where the problem is and where the solution lies.

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Rachael Williams

Rachael Williams

CEO of Streetwise Opera