A charity which has been helping to transform the lives of homeless, addicted and vulnerable people for two decades now desperately needs assistance itself. Chris Burn reports.
Prompted by the death of a drug user whose body was found in a churchyard, the Barnsley Churches Drop-In Project started from humble beginnings, with soup and hot dogs served to the homeless from a vestry.
Now about 15 years later, the project has expanded massively in size and scope, serving hundreds of hot meals across three sessions per week, with rough sleepers, people with addiction issues and those with financial problems also provided with toiletries, warm clothing and bedding if they require it. Need has been growing and in 2016, the charity’s small army of volunteers provided almost 16,000 meals to those in need.
Less tangible but perhaps of greatest importance for those who use the service is the chance to see a friendly face, talk about their problems and know someone cares about their welfare.
But the project, which was established by local churches but now operates as an independently run charity, now needs support itself and fears it may have to close for good in March unless more money to help meet its annual £40,000 per year running costs can be met.
The project moved into new premises at Temperance House in Pitt Street earlier this year but higher costs and a lack of available grants and funding means the charity’s future is looking uncertain. Volunteers and service users have also had to contend with complaints being made about the service’s proximity to the town centre from some quarters.
Ex-chairman of the project Kate Raynor knows first-hand what the impact of the project has been during her time volunteering there. “I speak to so many people who had no money, no home, no family and nowhere else to turn. The project isn’t just about feeding people when they’re hungry, it gives people a bit of hope and shows them that someone cares about them.”
Raynor became involved with the organisation several years ago with the initial intention of helping out temporarily. But she soon got drawn into becoming more involved. “About five years ago, I wanted to do something over Christmas and me and a few friends were going to do something for homeless people. It was through that I discovered the drop-in centre. That first year, we organised a meal on the days where the project was closed so there was something open every day of Christmas week. I just loved it and so I volunteered. It is a really nice environment to work in.
“Some of the volunteers used to be clients so they understand what it is like to be on the other side of the counter. Others might have had family members suffer with addiction issues; there are lots of different reasons why people volunteer. We are like a family.”
The project now often sees up to 100 people come through its doors for each session, with queues outside the entrance half an hour before it opens its doors. “It started as dealing with substance users, alcoholics and people sleeping rough. We are now seeing families struggling and older people who are lonely. There is a real range of people who need a bit of support, particularly in the last few years as local authority funding has been cut.
“We have an open-door policy which means anybody who needs help can come. It has been a steady increase. I have been part of the project for six years and it used to be that having 60 to 70 people was a busy day.
“It is a combination of austerity and other services not being there any more. A lot of it is similar throughout the country – changes to the benefits system and austerity affect everywhere.
But there is something a bit unique about Northern towns like Barnsley, where there are a lot of closed shops and people feel like the town has been forgotten. Some areas of the town have never quite recovered from the loss of coal-mining.”
But Raynor says with the increased scope of the project and the recent move to a new building with higher rents than the previous location they shared with another tenant, the project’s financial situation is becoming increasingly precarious. “We have got enough money to last until the end of March. The pots of money available to charities are getting smaller. We are finding that we are putting the same effort into applying for £1,000 that in previous years you would do for a grant covering the entire year. It seems that there are more charities looking for the same pot of money which is getting smaller and smaller. It costs about £40,000 a year to maintain the project; we are hoping for a combination of funding bids being successful and people being able to give us money. Giving us £10 has a direct impact.
“It is hard to know what the impact would be if we closed. There may be another charity or group that could step in. But this project isn’t just about food, it is for people to come somewhere where they know people care about them. Knowing that can help someone move forward.”
Raynor says she understands the concerns of some local business owners about the project’s town-centre base but sees the situation in a different light. “People who are coming here are Barnsley residents. The town centre is basically where our clients are every day of the week. It isn’t because we are here that these issues exist. We need to tackle the wider issues that mean this project needs to exist.”
She says the service can make a priceless difference to people’s lives. “There was a guy who came in and we gave him a sleeping bag and he cried. He hadn’t eaten for three days when he came in and he was so overwhelmed by everything we offered. They were such small things like a pair of gloves and a sleeping bag but they made the world of difference to him.”
Some of those using the service have later become volunteers. Pat Hughes, now a self-employed businesswoman, says: “I was a heroin addict for 12 years and was homeless for a few months. I used to use the service and it helped me out a lot. What’s important is knowing there’s someone there to help, someone to fall back on. The thing that stuck in my head was knowing there was someone there who cared. That made a big difference in my recovery and the life I have now.”
Bev Parfitt, previously addicted to painkillers herself, has been assisting the project for about seven years. “The reason why I came here to work was I had an addiction myself, I knew what they were going through. I just wanted to give something back. Working here opened my eyes, it really did. There are so many people out there who are struggling and not a lot of help for them. It sounds silly but I owe this project so much because it has kind of saved me. It gave me purpose and focus. It has made me a better person.”
Service user David Fairweather, aged 39, says: “When I first came, I was living in supported housing and struggling to get my finances right. It has kept me alive with food, clothes and feeling welcome. It is shocking people are needing more and more projects like this.”
Appeal for help
Small donations can play a big part in securing the project’s future, officials say.
Co-ordinator Caroline Hyde says any help is appreciated at a time when it is increasingly difficult to secure official grants for organisations like this one.
“If you can give £5 or £10 a month it will make a real impact on local people. We’re not a big charity with a marketing budget,” she says.
“I’m the only paid employee, everything else is done by volunteers. We are very appreciative of all the donations of clothing and toiletries we receive. But without the funds to pay the bills, unfortunately we won’t be able to continue.”
For more information on how to provide support, email firstname.lastname@example.org.