Service for most vulnerable in Portsmouth announces closure after 30 years of changing lives

From left, Off the Record's Paula Riches, Michelle McKay, Lorna Stringer, Colin Solly, Catherine Thomas, Debbie Smith, Steve P and Aderonke Ogundoyin 

Picture: Sarah Standing (161474-9129)

From left, Off the Record's Paula Riches, Michelle McKay, Lorna Stringer, Colin Solly, Catherine Thomas, Debbie Smith, Steve P and Aderonke Ogundoyin Picture: Sarah Standing (161474-9129)

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THE most vulnerable young people in Portsmouth are being left with barely anywhere to go in moments of crisis.

That’s the warning from support workers as the city’s Off The Record counselling service reveals it is to close after three decades of changing lives.

Where will they go when they have these issues? We have had people talk to us about big issues, there are more cases of rape, sexual,physical and emotional abuse.

Off The Record counsellor Debbie Smith

The Fratton centre is shutting in December because funding has dried up and it has failed to get any more money to keep going from health organisations or the city council – which has come under fire from critics for not doing more to help.

It comes despite a 20 per cent rise in the number of young people going to OTR for help this year.

Running costs are in the region of £60,000 a year and less than half has come from the council in recent years, with the rest from other sources.

Off The Record counsellor Debbie Smith said: ‘We’re all so passionate about the service. We are absolutely devastated. The knock-on effect it will have on young people is going to be terrible. Where will they go when they have these issues?

‘We have had people talk to us about big issues, there are more cases of rape, sexual,physical and emotional abuse.’

Between April and September, 551 counselling sessions were arranged, 1,455 calls were taken and 190 hours of support was given over the phone.

Support worker Lorna Stringer said: ‘It’s sad because we know the level of difference we make to the lives of young people in Portsmouth, and I don’t know where they will go.

‘There are life-threatening situations. For some people, this is their lifeline.’

There is also an Off The Record in Havant, but that is unaffected as it receives money from different places.

One woman, whose life was turned around by Off The Record, said: ‘They have helped me through a lot of hard times and made realise that life is worth living, even though it can seem like it’s not.’

City Lib Dem leader, Cllr Gerald Vernon-Jackson, says a £500,000 pot the council set up 18 months ago to help organisations like OTR still has £475,000 sat in it.

He said: ‘The council has just sat by and watched organisations go to the wall, when they have money sat aside to help voluntary organisations.’

OTR failed to win part of a new contract for work, which went out for tender to support the vulnerable, which other organisations including Relate Portsmouth will pick up from January.

It followed a review led by the NHS Portsmouth Clinical Commissioning Group and the council into mental health support for young people. A total of £2m has been secured over the next five years to transform the service.

But OTR chairwoman Paula Riches said: ‘The decision to close the office, an incredible hard one, was made as our attempt to carry on in the city was not successful. A new consortium won the Future In Mind contract which includes “counselling”.

‘My genuine concern is to whether they will be able to offer the support and counselling.’

‘MORE PEOPLE WILL GET HELP’

HEALTH experts insist they remain committed to supporting the vulnerable – and more will get help.

Suzannah Rosenberg, director of quality and commissioning, for NHS Portsmouth Clinical Commissioning Group, said: ‘The years ahead will see an increase in funding for emotional wellbeing services, which in turn will mean that more young people will get the support they need if they find themselves at a difficult, challenging period in their life.’

Speaking about the contract for work which Off The Record was not chosen for, she said: ‘The new service will be run by Relate.

‘It was awarded the contract after an open, competitive process, and the services they have agreed to deliver – supporting both younger children and their families, enabling peer support, stepping in at an early stage to reduce the need for specialist mental health services – were shaped by the feedback we have received from young people and their parents.’

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