A FAITH in the possibility of change, and a commitment to never giving up, are the keystones of the Nelson Trust’s Women’s Centre, in Swindon, which works with many of the most traumatised and vulnerable women in our community.

The centre, in Victoria Road, provides a lifeline for women at the limits of society – those who are homeless, addicted or at risk of involvement with the criminal justice system. Most often, these areas overlap – as mental health issues, poverty, abusive relationships and lack of support may push women into criminal behaviour.

If a woman turns up on the doorstep of the centre - perhaps hungry, desperate, homeless or addicted – she will not be turned away. From the first cup of tea and offer of a shower, to the limitless support along the road to recovery and renewal, the dedicated staff at the women’s centre will never turn their back on those asking for help.

“We are helping women with multiple vulnerabilities,” said Niki Gould, head of women’s community services. “When they access the centre, many have experienced previous trauma, such as childhood neglect, physical or sexual abuse, many have been in repeated abusive relationships; the women may have substance misuse problems or mental health issues, housing that’s not suitable, or unsafe, or be homeless.

“Many women have lots of these issues going on at the same time. They may have children, and maybe social services are involved, or have lost their children.”

Christina Line, general manager of the Swindon women’s centre, said recent issues with the roll-out of Universal Credit had caused problems for many women.

“They have to wait at least six weeks for their first payment and we’ve seen an increase in women coming in with no money and no access to food, and getting themselves in debt. They’re getting letters because their housing benefit is not being paid, and it’s leading to evictions. If you need to provide for your family and you have nothing to give your children, what are you going to do?”

Niki explained: “You may have been shoplifting several times to feed your children, so you end up in prison for a short time, so your children are taken into care, you lose your home, and when you come out of prison you might not get suitable housing for a family – that creates an awful Catch-22 for women who are really no risk to society, and you can see how it leads to intergenerational trauma, and more offending. It’s about how to break that cycle.”

The women’s centre offers a wide range of services, ranging from practical help, support in dealing with other agencies, one to one counselling, group activities and peer support. This is an organisation focused not on the short-term but the long term: clients are helped to find safe accommodation, then encouraged to tackle mental health and addiction issues, emotional intelligence – and even budgeting for Christmas.

This approach has benefits not only for the individual women, but for their children and families – which has the potential to break the generational cycle. It has positive effects not only for the individuals, but for the whole of the community, now and into the future.

“Experiences as a child can have a massive impact on your life and ability to build positive relationships, how you manage emotions, the quality of your education and ability to sustain employment,” Niki said. “Our approach is to say, let’s look at why women have offended, in the context of their entire life.”

The Swindon Women’s Centre opened in 2013 and moved into its current premises in February this year. It has around 300 women on its books, with different needs and in different stages of their journey. Women may be referred by other organisations, or refer themselves.

Each one is offered a detailed individual assessment of all their needs across nine pathways – including accommodation, mental and physical health, drugs and alcohol, finance and benefits, family and relationships, domestic abuse, sex work, education and training, attitudes and behaviour. Each will have a keyworker who works with them to create a plan to address their needs.

Across the week, a full timetable offers educational courses, workshops, drop-ins and groups – which cover well-being, life skills and creative activities. The centre also has a creche facility, a washing machine and café area.

Niki explained how they had helped one young woman turn her life around: “She was just 19 years old and had over 70 previous convictions, and had not been out of prison for more than five days at a time since she was 17. She drank heavily in order to deal with her previous experiences, as she had suffered significant trauma, and the anger she was feeling, because of the things she was trying to cope with. She was charged with public order offences and was homeless – but we helped her find supported housing.

“Now of course a miracle did not happen straight away – but her times in the community and out of prison got longer and longer, she managed to find employment. She had a lot of one to one intensive help around self-harming.

“She accessed help for about four years, and just recently I met her again and she has been employed for two years full time, has a stable relationship, and has not been drinking for two years – she has completely transformed her life. Now she will come along with me, to help train custody sergeants – and I would love her to work for our organisation, so her experience can be used in a positive way to help other women, they would listen to her.”

The trust also runs a Sex Work Outreach Project from the centre, providing support for women engaged in sex work, providing health checks and finding ways to promote their safety, for example by sharing information through Ugly Mugs, a national scheme through which women can make reports about abusive and dangerous punters.

The Nelson Trust has received national recognition for their approach and the work they undertake, and came to the attention of the Ministry of Justice. Earlier this autumn, Rose Mahon, head of excellence at the Nelson Trust, was named Criminal Justice Champion at the prestigious Howard League for Penal Reform’s Community Awards.

Niki has also been announced as the recipient of an Outstanding Achievement Award by the Longford Trust, which believes everyone deserves a second chance and helps those coming out of prison.

“We always believe in the possibility of change, and we never, ever give up hope,” Niki said.