The countdown to Christmas, as twinkling lights are flicked on and shoppers stampede the high street, is now in full flow in Worksop. But even during this festive time, it’s easy to forget that there are people facing loneliness, hunger and, as temperatures drop below freezing- even death on our streets.
Popping out for lunch or heading home in the startlingly bitter cold, I’ve found myself wondering what on earth I would do if I wasn’t lucky enough to have a home to go to as snow threatens to fall.
That’s where homeless support charity HOPE Community Services, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, comes in.
This week, I was invited to their hostel to see what this remarkable charity is doing to tackle homelessness in the town.
I arrived to a bustle of activity as I entered the HOPE offices, based on Queen Street. The staff there are busy putting together Christmas care packages and gift bags for people who are currently in their care, urgently packing non-perishable food items and toiletries.
Development officer Emma Longmore, who started out as an apprentice at HOPE and is now their development officer, points out boxes of chocolate nestled in between packs of dried pasta and tins of tomatoes.
Can you believe I have spoken to people who told me they don’t think the homeless deserve chocolate and other nice things? Christmas should come for everyone, I think.Martin Healey, former HOPE service user turned volunteer
“We like to make sure HOPE service users get a few treats at Christmas,” she tells me. “Can you believe I have spoken to people who told me they don’t think the homeless deserve chocolate and other nice things? “Christmas should come for everyone, I think. Each package is carefully put together by to make sure this happens.”
Joined by HOPE volunteer, Tracey Wilks, and manager of the HOPE hostel, Julia Headland, Emma informs me that Christmas is one of the most hectic times of the year for staff.
And with space for just fourteen guests, they are sometimes forced to turn people most in need of somewhere to stay away - whether it’s Christmas or not.
“It’s one of the hardest parts of the job,” says Emma. “Nobody wants to say no to a desperate person.
“We can refer them elsewhere and sometimes provide emergency beds, but only when extremely cold temperatures threaten to kill.
“We can also offer sleeping bags to those who have to sleep on the streets, but these are no good during heavy rain and snow. With limited funding, there’s only so much we can do.”
“Our hostel is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, and as temperatures drop in the winter it becomes even more challenging as people come to us in desperate need of help,” adds Julia. “They’re well aware that the cold can kill them. If they try to seek shelter in a shop doorway or another public place, they will usually be moved on.
“We’ve helped people who told us they have tried to set up tents in isolated places in the town, only to discover they have been stolen or cut up. People can be very cruel.”
I’m shown inside the HOPE hostel which is located next to the charity’s main offices.
It has beds, showers, laundry facilities, a communal area and garden. People who are awarded a room for up to 14 days are provided with breakfast, lunch and dinner and have access to one-on-one sessions with a support worker, as well as cookery classes and other activities to build their confidence.
Currently, work is also taking place to install a further six studio flats at the hostel which will meet increasing demand for accommodation for homeless Worksop families.
“It’s so sad that we’re seeing a rise in families with children losing their homes as Government cuts take hold, such as issues with working tax credits.” adds Julia.
“It’s nice to know that, by next Christmas, we’ll be able to help them as well as single homeless people.”
In the hostel I meet an ex-service user, Martin Healey, who tells me his story.
A bubbly and energetic person, it’s hard to believe that Martin once found himself alone on the streets of Worksop, struggling to survive, after the death of his wife around two years ago.
“The problem,” Martin tells me, “is that when you’re homeless you’re seen as something less than human. I don’t know how it happens, but it does.”
“I lost everything the day my wife died,” he goes on. “I could barely function and the utility bills just kept flying in. I had nobody- and then I got kicked out of my house.”
Just one of the thousands of people who has approached HOPE for help since its launch in 1996, Martin is doing well in ‘move-on’ accommodation and now volunteers as a handyman at the hostel, hoping to break the stereotype surrounding the homeless.
“What a lot of people don’t realise when they turn their nose up at a homeless person in disgust is that a lot of them are just normal people who end up on the streets due to circumstances beyond their control,” Martin says.
“I’m not alcoholic and I don’t take drugs - I just lost someone I loved. It could happen to anybody.”
He adds: “I will admit- I used to be one of those people before this all happened.
“I didn’t want to be anywhere near a homeless person because I stupidly assumed they were there by choice. But you’ll find that even the addicts have turned to drink and drugs because of a trauma.
“Now I am a volunteer for HOPE, I meet people who are down on their luck every day. I see the human being underneath it all and I understand them.”
But what of Christmas for those at the HOPE hostel, I ask Martin, and his eyes light up a little.
“My friend John, also an ex-service user turned volunteer, is going to cook a great Christmas Dinner for everyone here,” he says. “A three course meal with a starter and puddings. The food is all provided by The Lion Hotel, which is very kind of them. Then there’ll be a Christmas get together in the communal area, where we’ve put up a Christmas tree and lights.”
It’s clear to see that what really keeps the charity afloat is, simply, kindness from the Worksop public.
I ask for an example of a local organisation that has offered help, and staff members immediately begin to reel off names.
From a £2,000 donation from St. Anne’s Church and Retford Rotary, to a range of household items from B&Q, to one off donations by residents- it’s a long and heartwarming list.
It seems to be at HOPE that the true spirit of Christmas can really be found.
Want to help? You can donate to Hope’s Just Giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/hopecs or text text HOPC24 with your chosen amount to 70070.
For more information on volunteering, visit www.hopeservices.org.uk