At this time of year the plight of anyone who finds themselves without a bed for the night is particularly poignant. Homelessness is increasing nationally and Canterbury has also seen a rise. Figures vary depending on source but 50-70 people sleeping rough in the district seems to be a consensus.
Catching Lives runs the day centre and outreach programme from their premises in Station Road East and those working there have enormous experience of supporting people in need. This time of year they also run a Night Shelter in the city from 1st December until the end of February providing 20 beds each night for people who might otherwise sleep on the streets and as the BID works closely with them I was invited to visit the shelter to see for myself what happens.
I went along at 6.30pm on a chilly Tuesday evening to the centre and met James and Danni who were making sure everything was organised for the evening. If you have never visited the centre you may have all sorts of perceptions about what it is like; my advice is to arrange a visit to see for yourselves. For me, it is like a youth club for adults: settled, calm, people playing table tennis or pool, reading, looking at the PC. The centre has a shower and bathroom facility and laundry so everyone has access to the facilities they need. On the evening I was there 12 people were being accommodated and had all been given a delicious hot meal served by the great volunteers who work so tirelessly to help those in need.
At 7.15pm a logistics volunteer turned up to transport the camp beds and bedding to the church hall that was that evening’s venue for the shelter, on this occasion St Pauls Church Hall; a different church hosts a night each week, the previous evening had been St Mary Bredin. Once they were all despatched, everyone gathered their belongings and we walked along the Ring Road together to St Paul’s some 500 metres away.
By the time we arrived at the warm and welcoming hall, the beds were all set up and three lovely ladies were waiting to serve tea and cake!
I spent some time talking to James and Danni about the issues the city has with homelessness. The first lesson is that there are no simple solutions and that every person who finds themselves in this situation has a different set of circumstances that led to that. Second is the role that mental health plays in so many of the cases the team deal with; how we tackle that is a real challenge as services are so stretched. Finally, it is how we can all best help: for me, having worked closely with the teams at both Catching Lives and Porchlight, the very best way to help is to donate money to them. MyCanterbury enables users to contribute to a #Givelocal fund, enabling donations to be made that are divided equally between the two charities without any deduction for administration. Funding what they do and also supporting outreach and mental health support are really important and the BID will do whatever we can to help.
Anyway, I left around 8pm with increased respect and admiration for those who work so hard, often unpaid, to help others; I also was reminded of the tremendous work our local churches do all year round and how they always ‘step up to the plate’ when needed. Walking down Burgate, admiring the Christmas Lights, I was reflecting on all that I had seen. Then, I was brought up short: two people were in sleeping bags, surrounded by their possessions in the Burgate arcade. Why were they there, especially so early in the evening? The shelter had 8 spare places, why didn’t they go there instead? Was this choice or circumstance?
I walked on, coming to terms with the first lesson I learned that evening: there really are no easy solutions.