(Robes scheme founder Sheryl Anderson (left) with co-ordinator Anne Thomas (centre) and Housing Justice London co-ordinator Sally Leigh. Pic Michael Donald)
As London’s restaurants and bars gear up to host Christmas parties where office workers will let their hair down, some of the capital’s churches are preparing themselves for guests of a different nature. One group of 14 churches in the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark will take it in turns to welcome a group of homeless people for the night under a scheme designed to utilise these often empty spaces.
The project, entitled Robes, ran for the first time in January 2007. Each church, of which there were nine last December, takes homeless people for one night a week over a set period and provides them with an evening meal and accommodation. More churches have been recruited this year and services will be provided for two months.
Sheryl Anderson, the minister of Bermondsey Central Hall Methodist Church in south east London, had the idea for the scheme after seeing a similar project in north London in 2006. Anderson’s church is located on Bermondsey Street, one of the most fashionable streets in London. Neighbours include the Fashion and Textile Museum founded by designer Zandra Rhodes and numerous gastropubs and style bars, so at first glance it seems an unlikely area to require a night shelter. But after making inquiries to local Christian homelessness charity The Manna Society Anderson found the reality was different.
“They told me there were no night shelters south of the river until Croydon and that one was desperately needed,” she says.
DEREK: A homeless man with schizophrenia
Derek*, 60, who has schizophrenia and depression, spent five years sleeping rough after the death of his mother who had been his carer. In November 2007 he woke up in hospital after having had a brain haemorrhage. Discharged in January 2008 with a letter to the Homeless Persons Unit and no other support, he was told he was not a priority case. He has great difficulty in communicating and expressing his needs. With the help of the community mental health team for single homeless people and Robes he is now in a supported housing project.
* Not his real name.
Anderson tried to recruit churches to the scheme, but found a great deal of reluctance because of the stereotypical image of homeless people as alcoholic beggars. Not enough churches came forward and her first attempt to set up the scheme failed.
“It felt risky, people were worried they couldn’t cope. They had anxieties and misconceptions about people who were homeless,” she says.
Shortly afterwards Anderson discovered that a church in Lambeth was trying to set up a similar scheme and the two joined forces. Between them, and after some more hard work, the ministers finally managed to recruit seven churches, the minimum required to cover each night of the week.
The Robes scheme takes 13 guests a night – this is the maximum capacity of the smallest church – and referrals are made by staff at a Manna Society day centre for homeless people near London Bridge. The workers refer people who want to move into permanent accommodation. The project does not cater for people with serious alcohol or drug addiction problems.
Two week stay
Each guest is initially allocated a two-week stay but this can be extended if necessary. During this period a salaried Robes co-ordinator, volunteers and Manna Centre workers help guests find permanent accommodation to move into at the end of their stay. The success rates are impressive: 32 out of 42 guests had improved their accommodation situation by the time they left last year’s scheme.
On the nights when homeless people stay, each church is manned by volunteers, who are trained by Christian housing and homelessness charity Housing Justice. Sally Leigh, London co-ordinator at the charity, says it is this which makes the project special and allows the erosion of a “them and us” mentality as much as possible.
“Some say ‘you are the first person in months that has spoken to me who isn’t being paid to do so’,” she says. “You sit down with people and there’s no division between volunteers and guests.”
Reasons for homelessness
While the public often shares the same perception of homeless people as the churches who were reluctant to take part in Robes, the reality is very different, says Anderson. Many of its guests are ashamed of their situation and refuse to beg, while others are in paid employment.
“We have homeless guests who are working. The first year we did [Robes] we had to go out and buy a project iron,” she says.
It is often issues such as relationship break-ups or bereavement which lead to people becoming homeless. Many find themselves unable to get back on the housing ladder, often because eligibility criteria for statutory housing services deem them to be of low priority need, and their problems soon worsen due to being out on the streets. Leigh says this can happen alarmingly fast.
“One man we worked with was like that. In one week he split up with his wife, in the next week his best friend, who was a great source of support to him, died and then in the third week his van, which he was living in after splitting up with his wife and which was key to his income as he was a roofer and builder, was stolen. His life unravelled in three weeks. Those are the kind of people we pick up,” she says.
Jo: Former rough sleeper
Jo*, 61, was homeless and sleeping rough with her two daughters after the death of her husband and the loss of her council tenancy (which had been in his name only) because of rent arrears. Her income was £96 per fortnight and rent was £40 a week plus council tax. With the help of a Robes volunteer she has been classified as a priority need client and has now moved into sheltered accommodation
* Not her real name.
Over the Christmas period, from 22-30 December, the guests are booked in at one of the London Christmas shelters run by homelessness charity Crisis. Anderson says the project is very much a response to the cold rather than Christmas, in fact it has no religious discrimination and the promotion of religion by either the volunteers or churches isn’t permitted.
Robes has not sought statutory funding as to do so would mean it would have to adhere to certain rules, says Leigh. The Robes co-ordinator post is paid for by The Manna Society, while food and other provisions last year were provided by Marks and Spencer. The churches themselves also contribute and in the past some companies have given donations. Leigh says the volunteers shouldn’t be taken for granted either because it’s down to them that the scheme can be run on such a shoestring.
Anderson says that the project’s strength lies in its small scale and voluntary nature, things that would be lost if Robes ran all year round as more paid professionals would have to be employed.
“Part of the magic is that it’s a small cottage industry and what we offer to the people that come and stay is a real sense of friendship. People do it because they want to. It’s a real gift and I would be sorry to lose that.”
This article appears in the 11 December issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Church service for homeless people