Sheffield homeless project's new exhibition shows how charity survived Covid and an arson attack

A new photographic exhibition shows how a Sheffield homeless charity got through the struggles caused by the pandemic and an arson attack and is now looking to the future.

Saturday, 18th September 2021, 4:00 am

The exhibition in Sheffield Cathedral traces how the The Archer Project, which is based in the building, coped during the pandemic.

In total, 54 photographs taken by Sheffield-based photographer Mark Harvey show the project pre-Covid, during the pandemic and the future beyond Covid. It’s called To the Gate and Back because at one point the project had to close its doors and centre users and staff had to interact through the main gate.

In one very moving part Mark was able to capture a moment when a young woman saw a homeless couple having a row and reached out to them in a gesture of solidarity.

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The 'white rose' section of the Archer Project exhibition in Sheffield Cathedral

Archer Project chief executive Tim Renshaw said: “When Covid struck, we had no idea how we were going to survive as a charity and how we were going to work with this group of people. We believed they weren’t going to be taken care of very easily.

“The big thing was the need for social distancing to be safe and well. We lost 75 per cent of our frontline staff and volunteers because of the need for safety and we were used to the centre being a really hectic, very busy and quite intimate space.”

Tim described their first attempts at opening as a socially-distanced space as an “absolute disaster” and they realised it wouldn’t be possible to let people congregate together indoors during lockdown anyway.

They reluctantly took the decision to close and to concentrate on working alongside other groups working with homeless people, such as the Sunday Centre, Ben’s Centre and Homeless and Rootless at Christmas (HARC), to support people who were being found temporary accommodation off the streets.

Sleeping bags on display - the Archer Project are appealing for more

Users were able to come and get hot drinks and food but they had to be passed through the gates of the centre for a time – something the project staff felt was letting users down but they found to their surprise and relief that their view wasn’t shared by the people they were supporting.

Tim said that being put in hotels proved difficult for some people who used the centre to get away from others who were a negative influence on their lives and suddenly found themselves staying in the same place together.

He said that the council did a great job under difficult circumstances.

Then last May the project was devastated by an arson attack that destroyed three rooms in the centre, threatening to halt its work. Tim said: “The fire brigade were here on the Friday evening and we said we’ve got to work to get sandwiches, coffee and tea to the gate. That’s what we did.

Sunday morning, very cold, handing out hot drinks and sausage sandwiches. Picture: Mark Harvey

“On the Saturday morning almost all of the trustees were here scrubbing the canteen and kitchen area down, so at least we could operate on the Sunday. It was terribly smoke damaged.

"We got our act together and delivered food again. We were doing take-out food packages to B&Bs and accommodation that didn’t have kitchens. A pub in Crystal Peaks took on doing that for us for four weeks.

“What we really experienced was just this fear of what on earth are we going to do? The incredible work of volunteers and supporters and donations meant we could carry on.”

Tim described why there are white roses in one section of the exhibition. “Two people who live on the street were having a massive row. The street doesn’t allow you to hide your domestics. They were going at it hammer and tongs.

The destruction of the fire at the Cathedral Archer Project, May 14, 2020. Picture: Mark Harvey

"Mark the photographer intervened and said to the woman just walk away with me. A foreign student, Chloe, had overheard the row and came out of her accommodation with a white rose she gave to the woman.”

He said that simple act helped to diffuse the situation: “She took it back to her partner a a sign of love and peace.”

The flowers are there to encourage people to pay forward a gesture of kindness, said Tim. “We just want people to take a white rose away. At this time of tragedy, just give someone a white rose.”

One former service user, Chris Lynam, has written a poem about the story which is on display. There is also an audio clip of the woman, recorded by Mark at the time, where she says how she was feeling at that moment – it’s quite heart-rending to listen to.

Chris wrote the poem after studying a transcript of the argument. He said the great thing about Chloe’s gesture was that someone had listened and had empathy with someone in a bad situation and not walked away.

The couple who had been arguing and the rose the woman was given, pictured by Mark Harvey

Chris told his own story: “I left prison in 2017. I was a heroin user and an alcoholic. I was ex-military, been abused as a child and had PTSD and that led me to prison eventually. I’d been homeless, eating from bins, and there wasn’t many options available. I’d been convicted of violent offences.

“It was going back to the same people and drugs or come here. The wonderful staff in prison took a risk with me – I think someone was connected to one of the social enterprises attached to this place. I got a job here within an hour of leaving prison.

“I don’t know where I could be now had I not walked through the doors.”

Chris now works for a social enterprise called Printed by Us, who screen-print artists’ designs on to posters, T-shirts, mugs and other products, which are then sold in a shop in Meadowhall and online at www.printedbyus.org. The workers are all recovering from homelessness or other challenges.

He is currently writing his memoirs for a production company that is looking to make a film about his story. You can see Chris speaking on this short film, made last year: www.archerproject.org.uk/article148/homeless-stories.

Chris said: “Because of this place I am engaged to be married to a wonderful woman who’s had similar issues. I have a two-year-old son who just went to nursery for the first time. I have a life now.

“Six years ago, sitting in a cell, I didn’t think I was going to have a life. I’ve got a great life – just simple things you take for granted, like having a phone contract, paying my bills and having wi-fi.”

Chris says he’s amazed every time he looks at his mobile phone – it’s always the same one, paid for on a contract, not stolen or pawned or sold as it would have been in the past.

Tim said: “That we are able to take someone from the street to employment is the centrepiece of what the project is about and having the resources to do that. It’s an important part of changing people’s experiences of life and perhaps just changes the conversation and just builds hope and hopefully leads to more Chrises.”

To the Gate and Back is at the cathedral until September 30. Entry is free.

There are opportunities at the exhibition to donate to the project, which is also looking for sleeping bags to give to people as the cold weather approaches. The Archer Project website is www.archerproject.org.uk

Visitors can buy Mark’s pictures by filling out a form and making an offer of what they want to pay.

The Archer Project photographic exhibiton at Sheffield Cathedral
Archer Project deputy EO Jo Parnell amid the destruction of the fire, May 2020. Picture: Mark Harvey
A visitor looking at the Archer Project photographic exhibition in Sheffield Cathedral