In the last twenty years, when community activism has been a major part of what I do work wise (paid and now unpaid), I have come to see many developments and it happens that helping the homeless has been a major part of my own involvement, although these days age and indifferent health means I am less active physically.
When I first began noticing homeless people on the streets, typically when I went out on patrol on a Friday or Saturday night with local Street Pastors, in an around Southend High Street, I naturally asked the questions: “what can and should be done” and “what can and should I do”? I took the view then that besides providing limited practical help I could and should show human kindness and respect others who do the same. Surveying the “help the homeless” scene, there was little around at that time. HARP, then as now, was the main homeless charity, but its emergency night shelter, which had some ten bed spaces, was invariably full and what else it offered at the time by way of help was but a small fraction of what it offers now. The local council prioritised those who they had a statutory obligation to help but they did little to help the single homeless person we would typically meet on the streets. While there were limited services to help people with mental health and addiction issues, there was little else around geared to the particular needs of rough sleepers, and it seemed to me there were many gaps.
If we survey the scene now, there is so much more offered, particularly by the voluntary sector, but the needs among the homeless remain and often these are complex. It has been my privilege to work with new organisations that have arisen in the interim to help the homeless, which brings me to what is perhaps the latest major new initiative. It is, for want of a better word, a resource centre, based in a unit in Short Street, just part the Post Office sorting centre. It is run by the local branch of a national charity, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVP) – details of some of what they do I give below (lifted from their website). While it is a religious (Catholic) based charity, the volunteers who help out are of all faiths and none (as are the people who are being helped).
My involvement with SVP began in earnest when during the 2019/20 Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) season, St. Helens Church took over from Ferndale Church, whose shelter I had managed the previous season, to run a shelter one night a week from the church. They did a splendid job and raised their game when Covid threatened to stop night shelter activities in February 2020, when they rose to the challenge and led the way with activities coming from their own temporary centre, notably working alongside the Council and other agencies to support homeless people during the Covid emergency. Them recently acquiring these premises is a natural continuation of their activities.
I have long been of the view a resource centre from which multiple activities to help the homeless and vulnerable, operating under the one roof, is much needed. While HARP and other organisations do a very good job providing such centres to address some of the needs they deal with, my take is there is still room for more. Last Saturday, the soup kitchen with which I am particularly involved, Street Spirit, moved to the SVP centre from where it has been operating for a number of years – the Clarence Road Car Park. While there were a few teething problems, particularly because of the limitations imposed on us due to the Covid emergency, it went well, and most of the other soup kitchens are now following suit.
Already SVP are doing a lot more than hosting soup kitchens. They run a food bank, deliver food parcels to those in need, provide outreach services to the homeless, provide all sorts of services to help those in need to get back on their feet and in showing human kindness. What is more, they are working together with many other agencies, including the Council, and an army of volunteers from all walks of life and religious and ideological perspectives, to address needs we are generally all agreed are real. It is early days but I am hopeful and see much potential. Despite new services, the needs among the homeless and vulnerable are great and the Covid situation adds to the challenges. I am touched and amazed at the number and variety of people wanting to help and optimistic that this new initiative will provide a springboard to do what both HARP and the Council say they want to do – eliminate homelessness.
From the national SVP website: “Our aim is to tackle poverty in all its forms through the provision of practical assistance to those in need. The concept of need is broader than financial hardship, so visiting people who are sick, lonely, in prison, or suffering from addiction is also a significant proportion of our work. The essence of our work is person-to-person contact and spending time with people is our greatest gift. Our 10,000 volunteer members, motivated by their faith, are committed to meaningful and long term befriending. Inspired by the message of the Gospels they seek and find those in need and offer them sincere friendship. They visit them in their homes, in hospital and in care homes on a regular basis and offer additional practical support such as food, furniture or financial help where needed. They also organise trips and events for older and isolated people. We offer friendship and practical help to all we visit, without regard to faith, ethnicity, status or sexual orientation. As we visit people in their homes we have strict safeguarding policies and procedures and all visiting members must hold a DBS certificate. Our core friendship service is complemented by additional areas of activity – community support projects (including community shops, furniture stores and advice centres), youth work, holiday provision and overseas aid”.