Helping the homeless help themselves in Leeds

For the last 20 years, homeless people in Leeds have been transforming derelict properties with Canopy Housing – and the best part is they get to live in them after.

The charity were recent winners of a UN-Habitat award for their work, which was bittersweet for Canopy director, David Nugent.

‘It was astonishing,’ he says.

‘Their website is full of stories from developing countries – projects that help people living in South American pueblos, so to have their award in the 5th richest country in the world – it shouldn’t happen should it?’

No handouts

For most of Canopy’s existence, they’d take empty properties on short-term leases from Leeds City Council. The council agreed to change the agreement in 2017 to extend the leases to 99 years, which has helped give Canopy more security with the banks so they can buy their own properties in the Burley and Harehills areas of the city.

To fund a purchase, 30% will come from recycled council Right to Buy receipts, another 30% will come from grants from organisations such as the Nationwide Foundation or LandAid, and the rest they’ll borrow from banks.

They’ve been quietly successful over the years and now have a property portfolio of 70 homes, 20 of which they own outright, having helped countless homeless people in the city reskill and reclaim their independence.

Canopy calls their programme ‘self-help’ and it’s an essential proviso of becoming a tenant — volunteers must put a shift in first. There are no handouts.

‘You’ve got to have worked on your home,’ says David.

‘That’s part of the deal we have with our prospective tenants. If they don’t turn up, we’ll go to somebody else.’

The volunteers will do everything from fitting the kitchens and bathrooms to putting in carpets and doing the plastering meaning they’ll be acquainted with just about every inch of their new home before moving in.

Canopy also partner with Leeds College of Building to provide certificates and help the volunteers get CSCS cards to help them work on site.

It’s not just the homeless that Canopy support, either, those at serious risk of becoming homeless will volunteer too.

‘We have a lot of volunteers that are fleeing domestic violence,’ says David.

‘It’s often the 7th attempt at leaving a partner they are actually successful, so finding a permanent home is vital.’

Since winning the UN award, they’ve also picked up Leeds City Council’s ‘Partner of the Year’ award and a Jo Cox Compassionate City prize, and have become a model for other similar organisations, such as Giroscope in Hull and Doorstep in Grimsby.

Success stories.

The walls of Canopy HQ are filled with pictures of smiling volunteers, waving power tools whilst covered in paint.

There is Patrick who came over from Cameroon aged 16 unable to speak a word of English but is now a qualified plasterer who is employed by Canopy to carry out maintenance work, and Daniel, who is not only a Canopy tenant but is completing a government-backed apprenticeship with them too.

David says the experience can be life-changing.

‘Seeing a home go from derelict to complete, in a way they want it, there’s the sense of achievement,’

‘It’s not just a Magnolia home,’ he adds.

‘They’ve learnt where everything comes from. They’ve been to Seagulls Paints and know how to sort stuff themselves.’

‘Far fewer people come back to us than housing associations for minor repairs, we don’t get things like “my door handle is loose, can you come round and fix it?’

‘If they do we say can you not fix it yourself? [laughs]’

Reasons for optimism

Canopy estimates there are 3000 empty properties in the Leeds area.

Some might be unoccupied after their owner passes away and leave property to children who don’t always know what to do with it.

‘Not everyone who acquires a property is all geared up like they want to be on daytime TV,’ says David.

This point underlies a philosophical question about how we have viewed housing in the UK over the past thirty years — how for too long, houses have been viewed simply as assets, rather than homes, which has had devastating knock-on consequences.

Nationally, numbers of empty homes have risen sharply over the last decade at the same time as the homelessness crisis has deepened. To many observers, it’s a scandal.

But in spite of the almost relentless bad news around homelessness, David is optimistic.

‘Canopy wouldn’t be what we are without being optimistic. We have a happy set of volunteers who carry on regardless. We’ll find ways to make things happen.’

‘We provide a solution that works for a small number of people, but it’s a pretty permanent solution.’

Canopy is now looking into more modern methods of construction such as modular and will be stepping up their efforts to buy new homes in Leeds. They hope to deliver five or six new properties a year, still ‘a drop in the ocean,’ says David, but with Leeds recently publishing its draft homelessness pledge, which aims to reduce homeless figures in Leeds down to the single digits by 2022, it’s hopefully a positive step in the right direction.


Speaking to different homeless charities and organisations during my time at New Start, it’s been said to me on more than one occasion that the homelessness crisis is going to get worse before it gets better.

It was another desperate winter for the homeless in cities across the UK, and on the face of it, it might look like little is being done to get some of society’s most vulnerable people into permanent accommodation.

But with pioneering charities like Canopy working successfully with forward-thinking local authorities, lives are being changed for the better.


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