Many of you will have hear the story of how Times journalist Penny Wark came up to Southport to visit Pete and wrote an article about Green Pastures. It was an important moment in the history of Green Pastures because it was the start of people nationally hearing about our ministry. Below is the article in full as it was printed.
God's Estate Agent
by Penny Wark
Published at 12:00AM, February 8 2005
A former stockbroker turned fundamentalist pastor has ended homelessness in Southport. Would his scheme work nationwide?
PASTOR PETE is small and round, with a big white beard and a voice that bubbles with infectious vigour. He is 62 and looks like Father Christmas, sounds like Rolf Harris and is a self-confessed hugger for whom everything is possible and nothing — not even the darker recesses of the human condition — presents an obstacle to making things better. This is why the people of Southport, on the Lancashire coast, view him as a hero.
Five years ago the church where he is minister was already a magnet for the town's homeless. This had a lot to do with Pete, because when they turned up on his doorstep, he never turned them away. He put them up in the cellar, in the converted garage, a few in the rooms upstairs, more on the drawing room floor, one in the shed. He even put a caravan in the front garden.
One day, aware that he had a full house as usual, he had an idea. What these people needed were proper homes, so he would cash in his £6,000 pension and buy a house for a few of them. He did just that, and five years, 68 properties and 300 housed people later, there are no longer any gentlemen of the road sleeping rough on Southport's Victorian streets, and the vast majority of the town's homeless people have their own front door.
Pete is full of stories of transformation. Treat people with kindness and they often improve, he says, whether they have mental health problems or their difficulty is with drugs or drink. He will tell you about the incontinent woman who had broken her hip who was resident at the time of his big idea. "We had her for six or seven weeks because no one was caring for her. We managed to get a district nurse to come and wash her, we gave her food. That woman has recovered now, she's absolutely fabulous."
Many more of the people he has homed have calmed down, become decent parents. The family who were once pariahs of the borough are now model neighbours; some children are no longer on child protection lists, a child with an antisocial behaviour order is now in school. "You can't just wash your hands of these people. It's wrong. We're simplistic in our approach — if a woman needs a home outside the town, we get her one and her son starts going to school. We treat people as normal human beings, and they improve."
We are talking at Pete's Assemblies of God church, a vast Victorian house that feels like a youth club (it has, of course, got one) and where, for the past 11 years, Pete and his flock have banged their tambourines, sung and prayed every morning from seven to eight. Self-governing and self-financing, it is also the nerve centre of Green Pastures, his housing scheme, and inevitably it is Pete's inspiration: as a fundamentalist church, it takes Christ's teaching literally.
"We are orientated towards the feeling that the Gospel of Christ is not sitting in a pew, it's going out and meeting the community," he says. "These people need help. We need to defend the rights of the poor. God is kind to the unthankful and the evil. My, that is something to take on. With a lot of people, there was no 'Thank you for helping me'; it was just abuse. We do what the Bible says: we sold our possessions and gave to the poor."
So how exactly has Pete solved Southport's homelessness problem? The first house was bought with a deposit from his pension and a mortgage, the next with a deposit from another church regular and another mortgage, and so on. Initially he set up a partnership; this is now transferring to a limited company that owns 68 properties, or 128 units — many are flats — all tenanted by people who have had tough lives. The local council pays most of the rent, which in turn pays the mortgages, and the administration is taken care of by paid help, as well as by Pete's much larger team of volunteers, who are as likely to be wearing rubber gloves and doing something unpleasant as scanning the financial pages for cheap loans.
There are now 26 shareholding investors who come from across the country, attracted by the notion of doing something socially and ethically constructive with their money, and the soundness of the scheme's finances. Last year it paid out 4 per cent net, and Pete expects to match this in 2005. Investors are free to take their money out of the scheme, provided that they give notice. It sounds simple, and it is: a happy stroke of lateral thinking that combines humanity and financial pragmatism has pulled off what no government, and certainly not John Prescott, has even begun to achieve. As a recent House of Commons report put it: "The Government's aim should be not to reduce homelessness, but to eradicate it." The question, then, is whether Pete's idea could work elsewhere in the country and help the 270,000 families who still don't have homes.
Pete is a big factor in the scheme's success, a man who combines patience and tolerance with financial acumen and lightly worn but charismatic leadership skills. He is easy to like because he is warm without being pious, or making you feel that you, too, must hail the Lord. He isn't cynical; in fact, there is something childlike about his sunniness, and it's easy to see how he attracts considerable reserves of skilled volunteer labour, and resources.
Builders help out, residents donate food and farmers give their "Ruth gleanings" — the produce that doesn't meet supermarkets' homogenised standards — enabling a charitable arm of Green Pastures to distribute 100 bags of food each week. The scheme is also supported by local businessmen and other landlords who sell on property at below-market rates.
It is also significant that Pete is a former stockbroker. Peter Cunningham was born in Stoke Newington, North London. His father was a door-to-door salesman whose gambling habit led to a trial for embezzlement. At this point he found God, and slowly his family followed him, with the exception of Pete, then 10.
At 16, Pete started work for a stockbroker, enjoyed the smart suits and pints of Worthington E at lunchtime, and indulged in what he calls "the normal excesses of teenage life". He borrowed money from his mother knowing that he would not have to repay it, got paralytically drunk, disappeared for three days and drove his parents "bananas". There were also minor cases of embezzlement.
He was 21 when, in a church in Walthamstow, North London, he had a moment of epiphany. He has been an active Christian since, and in the ministry since he was 26. Initially his conscience troubled him: at 30 he had taken on his first church and was visiting London with his wife and young family (they now have six adult children) when he sought out his former boss.
"The family were waiting in the car. I told him that I'd stolen about £100 off him and here I was with £400 to repay him. In the bible Zacheus repaid four-fold, so I'd saved up. Imagine how I feel — I'm a minister now, I'm making an open confession and he could call the police, so I was embarrassed already.
"He said he'd had a similar experience with God four years earlier, and told me to give the money to my favourite charity. I'm emotional about this now, I'm sorry. It was a remarkable experience because I wanted to put right something I'd done in the past, and you find such kindness, which you're not expecting. You sometimes feel that you need retribution, don't you? I've felt from time to time that I need judgment, not mercy."
Pete guffaws at this. It is time to visit some tenants, so we get into his Honda Stream with its sharps bucket for used needles in the boot. There is Jason, his wife Deana and their three young children. Jason is 28, slight and nervous after many years of living in care, and finding himself victimised regularly. He became an occupant of the church caravan eight years ago, and Pete looked him up five years later, when the family was living in a hostel. Jason has trouble holding down a job — he becomes physically ill when he feels under pressure — but Pete points out that the voluntary work he does as a driver for the church has given him confidence and shows that he is capable of working part-time within a caring environment. He is also a loving and responsible father. "You never know what's going to improve someone's quality of life. Sometimes it's just giving someone an opportunity, or bringing them back into the mainstream of the community. Jason's found a niche with his driving."
We visit Leanne, who is 18, the mother of a three-year-old child and now pregnant by her partner Phil. After months of intimidation by their landlord, they went to Pete, who found them a flat. Leanne is now doing a college course. Her mother died when she was five and she was later taken into care "because I was naughty". What does she mean? "I just used to stay out, not go to school, never do anything that was right. I was never in trouble with the police, though."
She calmed down when she had her daughter, she says, and feels safe now. She would like the bigger flat downstairs next, she tells Pete, and he smiles approvingly at her newfound sense of aspiration.
We also meet Ged, a former French and German teacher who had become a long-term street sleeper. "It was over a woman; I tend to be philosophical", is all he will say by way of explanation. A plate contains half-smoked cigarettes arranged in a neat pattern, the rest of the flat is chaotic.
"He was dying on the street," says Pete. "He gets a pension, and nine months ago we came to an arrangement — he would come off the street and pay us rent.
"These men have their own society and camaraderie. It's quite a harmonious community. Last week I found them deep in conversation about the cricket. Isn't that lovely? "A man came to us last summer. Alcoholic, dishevelled. You could almost cut his words with a knife, he was so vile the way he spoke. After four weeks he sat on the steps at the church and said 'I don't understand why you talk to me'. We just said that we believe that the Gospel of Christ is to meet people's needs.
"Two weeks later, the sun was shining, and he pulled out a picture of a lovely little girl. He said "This is why I'm on the road. My marriage was going through a difficult period, my daughter got killed on the road. Blew my mind. You're the first person who's shown me any kindness'. From the moment he talked to us he began to recover.
"Sometimes people can't take it. They're nice people. Sometimes they need someone outside authority." Pete's eyes have filled with tears again.
Inevitably the scheme does not always run smoothly. There are tenants who trash their flats, make holes in the walls, remove doors and test the patience of environmental health officers. Do some tenants take advantage of Pete's good nature? "All the time," he says cheerfully. "They flog the microwave for a tenner and then say someone nicked it. Especially the heroin addicts, then you meet them and they're sad cases.
"But these people aren't the problem — the greatest problem we have is with bureaucracy."
Although housing many former offenders (they account for 21 per cent of tenants) has brought a drop in the local crime rate, heroin addicts do not suddenly become immune to shoplifting. Nine were imprisoned for a few weeks before Christmas in 2003, and as their housing benefit stopped, so did rent payments. Green Pastures lost ten weeks' money at £75 a week — a loss that blocks further investment.
And Pete tells the story of Michael, a long-term tenant who has mental health problems and who habitually bins official letters, but who has created a routine with which he is comfortable, revolving around cafés, libraries and karaoke nights. He is rarely at home, and because he does not answer the council's letters, its officers refuse to accept that he lives there and the council has not paid rent for ten months.
"I've offered to sign an affidavit saying that I've seen him," says Pete. "If we were doing this as a business, we'd go broke. Local authorities tend to undervalue rental property, which affects rents.
"Keeping the quality of the portfolio depends on getting good rents because when you're dealing with difficult people, your maintenance costs are high. But they still need housing."
Pete has been careful to spread the properties throughout Southport so that there is no tenants' ghetto, and he is keen to expand further. The chief executive of Sefton Borough Council has asked him to talk to his senior staff because, Pete says, "he thinks that if we disappeared out of town, he would have a hole in his social welfare policy". He knows of 30 homeless people in the area right now, and plans to buy a further 170 properties — a small house in the area costs about £100,000.
He has already bought four houses in Flint, North Wales, and had requests from Wigan Borough Council and a charity in Salford to buy property for them.
"We'd love to branch out into other areas. The opportunity to extend and make an inroad without costing the nation a penny is there. It's humanitarian, this is what we ought to be doing."
As we visit Pete's tenants, it is easy to see squalor, the consequences of abuse, and failure, as well as the more obvious successes. Pete sees this, too, but his focus is on the homed people, the men who won't be sleeping on the streets tonight, who have companionship, and who have the right to live as they choose. "I'm really glad that when the frost is on tonight none of these men will die," he says.