Lime Legal

A call to alms

Published 01 January 2024

Maff Potts, the Sally Army’s new director of homeless services, talks to Jeremy Kuper about the services’ revitalised role – and why he gave up a career in advertising

The Salvation Army's Mary Randell with a homeless client

Maff Potts was once a high flyer in the glamorous world of TV advertising. The Salvation Army’s new director of homeless services owned a production company making commercials and corporate videos.

‘And then I lost the lot,’ he says. ‘I could make good films, but I was a lousy businessman.’

But the collapse of his business led to a rethink about the direction his life was taking. At first, he spent almost a year sleeping on friends’ floors, changing location every few days. ‘If it hadn’t been for my family and friends, I would have been homeless,’ he says.

The former advertising executive ended up working for the homeless ‘completely by accident’. ‘I volunteered to help Crisis with their Christmas event. And I ended up running their shelter for drinkers and drug users, which is still the best job I’ve ever had.’

He started working for Crisis full-time, running their Skylight activities centre in the East End. The highpoint came when he used the Millennium Dome as a homeless shelter for two weeks in 2014.

Potts was recruited by Communities and Local Government to run Places of Change, the hostel improvement programme. He was intent on a ‘culture change’ – replacing old Victorian hostels with modern facilities containing cafes, libraries and gyms. ‘It wasn’t about soup, but about providing opportunity,’ he says.

Potts ran the project for three-and-a-half years before taking up his new role at the Salvation Army.

Today, the Sally Army is the biggest provider of services and help for homeless people outside government. It has 57 hostels in the UK and Ireland, providing 3,200 beds a night. The organisation also runs 120 drop-in centres and 17 residential centres for old people. And it has a wider scope than most homeless charities with, among other things, a family tracing service and an international development department.

Potts is a Christian, although it is not a requirement for the job. The Salvation Army is also a church, but he wants to debunk the myth that ‘because Sally Army officers don’t drink, and are Christian, that means that we only help Christians. We’ve got every faith, creed and colour in our hostels, and we don’t turn anyone away’.

The officers’ faith strengthens the organisation’s role in helping people, Potts says. ‘They’re lay priests. But they’re trained in social work as well. Because of that, they have a special kind of commitment. They are there for the right reasons – not for themselves, or the money.’

Maff Potts: ‘If it hadn’t been for my family and friends, I'd have been homeless’

Many of the Army’s clients are battling addictions. ‘You can’t wait for them to be clean first. Many homeless people have an addiction problem – 70 per cent have a drug problem. We don’t just pick and choose.’

Potts says the approach is based on the methods of the organisation’s founder William Booth, who believed that mere charity doesn’t achieve anything. ‘You have to change the man or woman. We need to be rebuilding the person. And that’s about bringing a bit of fun, happiness and wow-factor back into their life.’

Potts has arrived at the Salvation Army with a specific remit for modernising hostels, and is adamant that no more dormitories should exist. ‘I won’t have it,’ he says. He also won’t have vinyl on the floor or plastic chairs. ‘Because that’s patronising. It’s saying you’re not worth more than plastic chairs.’ He wants hostels to resemble modern motels – with a lobby, hotel reception, and high quality rooms.

‘There’ll be nobody staring out the window with a can of strong lager in their hand worrying about what happened to their lives,’ he says.

And he is keen to widen the approach to tackling social exclusion with greater involvement of the private sector. ‘We have to talk about doing deals with private landlords, to underwrite arrears,’ he says. But while rough sleeping remains the focus of attention, not enough is being done to address the root causes, prevention and also routes out of homelessness.

‘We’re a country of 66 million people. What about the hundreds of thousands of people living under the poverty line? Let’s focus on the guys in the hostels, sleeping on the floors of their friends, or women who are beaten up by their husbands – let’s prevent homelessness.’