In the winter of 2017, as Liverpool was facing a peak in the number of homeless and vulnerable people living on its streets, Signature Living opened a unique homeless shelter, Kingsway House.
It all started after Chairman of the company, Lawrence Kenwright, purchased Kingsway House earlier in the year and came face to face with the homeless crisis on a new and personal level. People had been using the building for shelter and warmth, the reality of the issue really hit home with Lawrence and he couldn’t turn them away.
With freezing temperatures and countless people in doorways, Lawrence Kenwright decided to make a change and open Kingsway House to everyone who needed help. During this time, he was approached by David O’Keefe, a self-confessed hippy stuck in a dead-end job, with enthusiasm he dreamed of putting into the city.
Together, David and Lawrence opened the doors to the vulnerable people of Liverpool and soon the residents of the shelter became a close-knit family. Two of these vulnerable residents have since become employed by Signature Living and now are the proud owners of a business.
Both Brian and Derek came to Kingsway House seeking shelter, warmth and a family. They found everything they needed, but sadly when the harshest months of winter were over, the shelter was forced to close after facing pressure from the council.
Before Kingsway, Brian lived in a doorway on Old Hall Street, which was how he became known as Mr Old Hall Street. Always seen with his signature top hat and a friendly smile for every passer-by, Brian is famous in Liverpool. Derek is originally from Ireland, he travelled to Liverpool looking for work but after he broke his leg, he found himself vulnerable and in need of help. He heard about Kingsway House, met Brian and the rest is history.
The pair have now embarked on a new and exciting journey as entrepreneurs, so we sat down with them to discover what happened after the shelter closed and what life is like for them after Kingsway House.
Where did it all start with Signature?
Brian – I was living on the streets and was friends with David (O’Keefe). As the winter was getting closer, we were looking for someone like Lawrence who had property that could possibly help the homeless. We found Lawrence. He offered to let vulnerable people like us stay at Kingsway House, a building he had just bought.
Before we met him, we had never heard of Signature Living. But I’m so grateful to him. He’s such a great guy, I’m so glad we found him.
Derek – I was familiar with the hotels yeah. When I first came to Kingsway, it was a new experience for me you know. My aim was to help out as best I could and hopefully get a full-time job at the end and a place to live. And you know, it’s worked out well in the end.
What did you get from Kingsway that you didn’t get from similar shelters?
Brian – I’ve never actually been in other shelters, but I’ve heard stories about them. Kingsway House gave me hope and gave me confidence. It brought the real person out in me. I got love and respect from everyone at Kingsway, we were a family. And Lawrence knows everyone by name, he’s just a fantastic man, he made you feel part of it all.
Derek – When I came to Kingsway House, I was so happy with how different it was. Usually, at other shelters you have to do an assessment. They assess you, ask you lots of questions and decide whether you’ll be let in.
They might offer you a hostel from it, but not always. I was actually in another shelter a year ago because I had broken my leg playing football and needed help. When I first got there, I was assessed, and they told me I had to go back to Ireland. They even gave me a ticket. They said it was because had no connections in Liverpool and so they couldn’t house me.
But the difference with Kingsway was that they accept anyone in and there’s more fun in the hostel. They have music playing, there’s dancing, everyone gets on well as a family. I know there’s a lot of arguments as well but, you know, that’s family life!
You also got free meals three times a day, clothing donations and warm beds. Signature really made a difference and were fantastic in helping the homeless.
What happened after the shelter closed?
Derek – When the shelter closed a lot of people were disappointed because they made it their home. But, Signature did everything they could, they were obviously under pressure from the council and in the end, they had to close it.
Brian – It was sad to see. A few of the people have gone back to living on the street. When they first came into the shelter, they were ill and unhealthy, but when they came out they looked so good! I think some of them have gone back to their old ways now because there’s nowhere else for them to go.
Derek – But Signature did more than good for everyone, they really helped all the homeless people. They got them hostels, they gave around 15 of them jobs, they gave them every bit of support. They were fantastic.
Brian – Yeah, they gave them love.
And of course, you two are now entrepreneurs! What’s the best thing about owning your own business?
Brian – It’s fantastic, you know, because I get to tell him (Derek) what to do!
Derek – No you don’t!
Derek – No, of course it’s a proud moment and something that we never thought would happen. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime. It’ all thanks to Lawrence Kenwright and Sue Wright, they gave us the opportunity to get on our feet and really do well for ourselves.
So, we now run the car park and a cleaning business next to Kingsway House. We’re not going to become millionaires but we’re doing well!
As business owners we have been able to give a few more of the homeless people jobs and help out our friends who are in need. It’s been amazing and such a great opportunity for both of us.
Brian – It’s the best car park in Liverpool and the happiest!
Derek – And the cheapest! The car park is full every day by 8.30am, Monday to Friday and still does well on the weekend. From the money we made, we bought a jet wash machine, a proper petrol one so we can jet wash any cars that need it whilst they’re in the car park. All of our customers are more than happy with our work!
It sounds like an easy job, but it’s challenging. You need to be very organised. I know every customer that comes in, make sure I keep spots for staff and always treat the customers well every time.
Brian – He’s great at the business side and dealing with the customers. . . *singing* “He’s got personality, personality, personality.”
What does your typical day look like?
Brian – Oh I just look forward to getting up every day now, being out with the people and having a laugh. I love making people smile. I’m just over the moon, I’m so happy. I’ve never been so happy in all my life.
Derek – I feel like I have my life back on track now, I wake up every morning and I’m glad for the routine. I appreciate what I have, I just hope I never find myself in the situation I was in ever again. I look forward now and not back. I just hope to keep on building what I have.
What’s your favourite thing about Liverpool?
Brian – The people. The people are fantastic, unbelievable. They saved my life when I lived in the doorway every day.
Derek – Definitely the people. The amount of generosity that was shown, the amount of food, clothes and bedding that was brought to the shelter was amazing. I find them similar to the Irish people, they’re outgoing, easy going, living to help others and that’s what Liverpool is all about and that’s the reputation they have.
Brian – Yeah, they talk to the homeless, they don’t ignore them. Everyone needs that little helping hand to get them off the streets and it’s just nice when you’re seen as a human being.
We know you like to have a dance Brian, what songs make you smile?
Brian – It’s got to be Street Life hasn’t it. Street Life by Randy Crawford. *sings* “Street life, it’s the only life I know.”
But I like loads of different kinds of music. I like going to raves and I like a bit of the eighties stuff.
What inspired the way you dress?
Brian – It’s so I can get noticed, you know, to highlight the homeless. I get a lot of people stopping me and saying, why’ve you got that suit on and I’ll say it’s for the homeless. Basically, that’s why I started wearing my top hat first. I’ve had my hat for over 12 months now, people never used to notice me, but with my hat they see me. It’s become my trademark now.
Derek – I need to get a signature look I think. I did have a dell boy hat, but I left it in the pub last week!
If you could all have a super power for one day, what would it be?
Derek – That’s a hard one, but I think I’d love to be able to fly. You could get to any destination you wanted so quickly, quicker than an aeroplane and cheaper! You could see the world and explore new places, that would be amazing.
Brian – I would want to be able to spread love. Everywhere and to everyone.
What are the best things people can do in Liverpool to help the homeless?
Derek – Give them food and clothing.
Brian – And speak to them, say hello to them. It’s not about money. You sit there for hours and hours and not one person says hello to you. Giving them money is the worst thing to do.
Derek – Yeah, a lot of homeless people have problems, addictions, so giving them money won’t help. The best thing you can do is give them warm clothing, food, bedding and material things that will help them to live. And obviously help them to find access to a shelter or help to open a permanent shelter for vulnerable people.
Brian – Being homeless is very lonely, it’s a lonely and sad world. I just think the government should do more, they don’t do anything.
What are your hopes for the future?
Derek – I’d like to continue what I’m doing, continue working hard and hopefully more opportunities will come up. We’re on a contract with Signature now, so I just hope it carries on.
Brian – My hopes are to have my own place, just be able to have a shower and all that in peace. And, of course, I’ll always carry on helping the homeless.
Derek – Yeah Brian is so brilliant with the homeless, he goes out every Tuesday and Friday and gives sandwiches out to them. They all stop and say ‘Hi Brian’ – he looks after them, he’s an ambassador for the homeless if you ask me.
And yeah, of course I dream about having my own place too, maybe down the road or something.
Brian – Make sure it’s down the road from me!
Derek’s a good cook you know.
Derek – Yeah, I like to cook anything and everything. I just cook the basics really, but I enjoy it. Maybe one day I’ll be a chef!
Kingsway House saw lots of people take a new path in life, with somewhere to live and a better support system. The shelter also offered more people the chance to gain a better understanding of homelessness in Liverpool.
At Signature Living, we are proud to help the vulnerable people of our city and do all we can to make Liverpool a safer and better place for the homeless. Brian and Derek have changed their lives around, they now have jobs and have accommodation. Our shelter gave the people of Liverpool a spark to make a change and we’ll continue to do all we can to help.