Bridging the Gap for the homeless

by Jo Duckles

CHURCHES are stepping in to bridge the gap as Government austerity measures are forcing more people out of their homes and onto the streets.

In Oxfordshire alone around 130 beds will be lost as Simon House in Oxford and Julian Housing in Abingdon close. To highlight the increasing problem, the Revd Canon Dr Andrew Bunch, the Vicar of St Giles, organised a homelessness trail following a service on Homelessness Sunday in January.

“Around 40 people visited 16 places that are used by the homeless. It was a good way of raising awareness of the issues that the homeless have to face.”
During the trail an opportunity was provided for participants to talk with people who are coping with being homeless in Oxford. A Thursday lunch- time event at St Giles offered Oxford people the chance to hear about what it is like to be homeless by someone who was homeless but is now one of the staff of the Gatehouse – a drop-in centre for the homeless.

“The big problem we have got at the Gatehouse is a funding gap. Expenditure was £140,000 a year last year, but income was £120,000. The deficit is due to an increase in wage bills and a fall in donations,” said Andrew. “What I’m really worried about is the impact of Government cuts and loss of beds at Simon House and

Photo: Shutterstock

Julian Housing.”
The Gatehouse is open in the St Giles’ Parish Rooms during late afternoons and early evenings on every day except Saturday. It offers tea, sandwiches and an opportunity to meet in a safe environment. During the winter, hot soup is also offered. It also runs a clothing bank for the homeless as well as internet access and books and newspapers.

Public meeting

In Newbury, a public meeting took place on calling for more shelter for rough sleepers and opportunities to help them into work, on Wednesday 15 February.  There the Loose Ends drop-in centre provides meals, clothing and advice five days a week. Pam Hayden, a member of Newbury Baptist Church, runs Loose Ends. She said: “We run entirely on donations. We do a lot but there is so much more that could be done.”

A new soup kitchen, funded by the Salvation Army, was recently started by Meryl Praill, who also volunteers at the Newbury foodbank. The new soup kitchen opens on Thursdays, when Loose Ends is closed. Meryl said: “We have only been going three weeks. The food bank is providing the food and Waitrose is donating bread.” Meryl said that official figures show that there are around 15 rough sleepers in Newbury, but that does not take into account those who are sofa surfing or sleeping in hostels and who don’t have their own home.

Increase in homelessness

In High Wycombe, the Wycombe Homeless Connection, which started as a winter night shelter run by churches, has seen an increase in the number of people using its services.

The Connection has a support centre, helping homeless and vulnerably housed people fill in benefit forms and housing applications and offering food parcels. It helps its clients by running groups to help them build confidence and gain life skills. Apart from the night shelter, which runs from January to March, there is no other emergency accommodation in Wycombe.

James Boultbee, the Connection’s Operations Manager, said the organisation had been hit indirectly by austerity measures. “We have seen a huge increase in the number of people coming to us. That has gone up by 60 per cent and we are seeing a gradual increase in the number of people sleeping rough. We are trying to work out how to stay ahead of the level of demand. I think this is a result of austerity measures and the way the private rented sector has expanded so much. This means people are only offered assured shorthold tenancies which give them very little protection from evictions and rent rises.”

The Connection has always worked closely with All Saints’ Church, in the centre of Wycombe. The Vicar, the Revd Hugh Ellis, said: “We work in a very integrated way with services and authorities. We have a van that comes once a week to the church, where the street people gather in the churchyard. They give them a coffee, a hot breakfast and have a clean needle exchange.

“Some come into the church and light a candle. The work has developed at All Saints where the street community, including some are ex-homeless people, talk about us as their church. Even if they don’t worship here they come for prayer and a cup of coffee.” A day for clergy, LLMs and interested lay people to hear more about the current context of homeless and housing needs takes place on Wednesday 26 April, 10am to 4pm in Oxford. Click here to book.