This is not a post about buying someone a clock for Christmas – although that’s not such a bad idea. It is about giving the gift of time in a different way.
Charity begins at home – which is all very well if you have one. For the homeless or rough sleepers, winter must bring a renewed sense of dread. And when someone who you know – who was recently a fully paid-up member of society with a home, job and family – turns up at a street kitchen looking lost and broken, the stark reality really hits home.
The homeless are not wasters who need to be told to sort themselves out and get a job. They are another version of you and me, but struggling and failing to make sense of a world which seems to have forsaken them.
My wife, Jayne, helps to run a local charity called HOPING Street Kitchen. Staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers, it provides nourishing hot meals to the homeless and others in need in York. HOPING receives no government funding. It relies for its survival entirely on donations – from businesses, other charities and the public.
On Sunday nights Jayne joins fellow volunteers in the heart of the city. As they dispense hot drinks and gourmet hot meals to those who need them, she chats with the homeless. But more than that, she listens.
Give them the time and the patience and they all have stories to tell. These are people who have lost everything. Some freely admit to being complicit in their own downfall. Others are puzzled at the circumstances of fate that have seen them helplessly lose family, friends, jobs, homes – everything they held dear.
Many have drug or alcohol issues – sometimes the cause, sometimes the effect of their current plight. Many have been the subject of sexual abuse or domestic violence. In an age where mental welfare is taken more seriously than it ever was, almost all are facing very real mental health issues of their own. There is nothing snowflake here – other than the bitter snow-bearing winds which scour the city on wintry December nights.
During the 2021 lockdown, HOPING delivered hot meals to the hotels and temporary homes where rough sleepers were accommodated as part of the ‘everyone in’ programme. But council traffic rule changes meant the charity couldn’t get back to its old city centre pitch once lockdown ended.
The University of York stepped in and generously provided space in the grounds of the historic King’s Manor just 400 yards from the Minster. Local businesses and the York Vikings Rotary Club gave funds for food and equipment. By November, HOPING Street Kitchen was back on the street.
Listening – the telling difference
A letter from a local councillor, in support of a successful grant application to the excellent Arnold Clark Community Fund, brilliantly highlights the message that it is not just the donation of food, but the generous gift of time, that makes the telling difference. Here are some extracts from Councillor Michael Pavlovic’s letter of endorsement –
In my role as spokesperson for the formal opposition on City of York Council on Housing and Safer Communities, and in my career working with homeless people with multiple and complex needs, I am able to see the difference that Hoping Street Kitchen have made to the lives and the well-being of some of the most vulnerable people.
We often see people who are sleeping on the streets as faces, often dishevelled, dirty begging for money but rarely stop to think of the person, the human being in front of us, often lost, without hope, resigned to their situation but each with their own story, their need for acknowledgement, for love, for their perspective to be understood and this is what Hoping York volunteers give to them.
Users of their street kitchen and their food bank are accepted, listened to, cared about and treated with respect and with care as individuals, not just their circumstances. I speak with many of the people who genuinely see the food and the support given by Hoping Street Kitchen as a lifeline and an escape from their situation, for a few minutes a week.
Hoping Street Kitchen do what statutory organisations cannot, they offer their support unconditionally and that is why they need to have our support and why fundraising is vital.
It is, as Cllr. Pavlovic points out, the gift of taking the time to listen, to empathise and genuinely to hear their stories with compassion and care, that makes the real difference.
Pride and shame – the paradox
I am in awe of the work of the HOPING volunteers.
And, for me, there is that terrible paradox – I feel a sense of immense pride that society has within it people like the volunteers at HOPING in York who give their time and their effort to help those in need on the streets. And I feel a sense of utter shame that we live in a society where that need should ever arise.
Here is wishing you, and those who matter to you, health and happiness and a warm home this Christmas. And, of course, thanks for taking the time to listen.
Some homeless facts:
- There are more than 280,000 homeless people in England
- Being homeless doesn’t just mean sleeping on the streets
- The average amount of time spent in temporary accommodation is 199 days
- The average age of death for a homeless person is between 43 and 45
- Rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to be violently abused
- Suicide is nine times more common in homeless people than the general population
- 80% of homeless people have mental health issues
- 75% of homeless people have physical health condition issues
- Nine in 10 Britons think homelessness is a major issue
Find out more about HOPING Street Kitchen, volunteer or to donate. Click here.
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