A Visit to the Men's Safehouse

It’s a warm sunny day and we’re driving towards our destination without knowing where we’re going. Our GPS hasn’t failed, we haven’t run out of battery, we’re heading to Unseen’s specialist safehouse for men.

Not knowing the location is just one of the measures which have been put in place to keep the whereabouts of the safehouse a secret – and even most Unseen employees aren’t given the address.

We meet the safehouse manager at an agreed location nearby and then follow him in convoy to the house. We’re told to not pay attention to road signs. When we arrive, I’m struck by the fact that it looks like any other house. I’ve worked for Unseen for over a year and this is my first visit to the safehouse. I’ve read reports, seen photos, I’ve spoken to colleagues about it, and obviously I knew it was designed to blend in to the neighbourhood, but you build up a certain picture in your mind anyway. Safehouse sounds so institutional, yet we walk in to what feels like a home.

We go straight to the office, which also has a single bed in it for the support worker on the night shift to sleep in, and we sit down and start chatting. It almost feels like being back in university halls where everyone piles into a small room and sits on the bed for a catch up. We have a chat about the house, some of the rules, some of the day to day activities, but mainly we talk about the people who are living there.

The house has 24-hour support. This is in case the residents need anything, but also because a new resident might arrive in the middle of the night, so someone always needs to be here to welcome them. Often men leave their exploitation and arrive at the safehouse the same day. Many of the men here were taken out of their exploitative situation by the police, driven in the back of a police car to a police station and questioned. It feels like being arrested, just without the handcuffs. Sometimes they have been driven throughout the night to get here. There’s generally an understanding that this is a safe place, but it can be confusing, especially when you’re exhausted, scared and speak a different language.

Most residents speak little to no English when they arrive. Some have even been in the UK for as long as ten years and only know the words hello and goodbye. Their traffickers are very careful in making sure they don’t learn any more than that. Another way of keeping control.

They sign up to several English courses a week. Something to do during the day, giving them structure so they don’t get bored, but it’s also to learn English as quickly as possible. Being able to speak English is the first step towards living a more independent life, it makes everything easier. From getting around, to speaking with support workers, attending appointments and talking to other residents; preparing them for when they will eventually leave the safehouse.

Whilst some survivors stay in the safehouse for several months waiting for the Home Office to make a decision regarding the outcome of theirreferral, victims of modern slavery and trafficking are technically only entitled to 45 days of support from the government, many will have to leave the house after that. It’s not long to learn English, let alone recover from the trauma they have experienced. But at least during their stay here, residents can start the healing process, they can rest, eat healthy food and most importantly, they are given a key to their room, experiencing their first taste of privacy and independence for years.

We are then given a tour of the house. In the sitting room there’s a big bookcase full of books in many different languages including some recognisable favourites – I wonder how often Harry Potter gets read. There are photos on the walls. Beautiful, abstract images, taken by the residents. We go through to the kitchen, there’s a cleaning rota on the fridge, but the manager jokes for a group of guys, they’re generally pretty clean and tidy up after themselves. The men buy their own food and cook for themselves most nights, and once a week they eat as a group.

I get the sense the house has two personalities. On the one hand it is a place of work, organisation, timetables, rotas, fire extinguishers, procedures, security measures. On the other, it’s a relaxing place of support, friendship and comfort. It is a home. Keeping this balance between freedom and support can’t be easy.

As we’re talking in the kitchen one of the residents arrives back. I’ve met him once before and he says hello and introduces himself to the other two visitors. Another resident and his support worker appear in the garden, having just cycled back from an appointment. The support worker heads to the office whilst the resident gets comfy on the sofa and turns the TV on. We don’t want to intrude any longer and start to say our goodbyes.

On the drive back to the office we reflect on what it must be like for the survivors of slavery who live there. Unable to imagine what any of them have gone through, but positive they’re now safe. A resident once described the house as a place of healing, and I’m glad that there are places like this to support those who need it.

Carrie Brassley, Unseen