We’ve all hurried past rough sleepers, eyes down, ignored Big Issue sellers and made inward assumptions as to how someone has ended up sleeping in a doorway. But the recession has dealt many ‘ordinary’ people a tough hand, and it’s worryingly easy for someone without support to slip into a vicious cycle of homelessness and unemployment.
Thankfully, Wintercomfort is helping people break that cycle by giving homeless people a base, and an address, from which to gain employable skills, have a hot meal and shower, and get back on their feet.
Once registered, centre users are allocated a project worker and have access to all Wintercomfort’s facilities. This includes free hot breakfasts for rough sleepers, tea and coffee on tap, clean showers and loos, a laundry room and even changes of clothes that are donated by the public. There’s a computer room for users to complete job applications, and so people can stay in touch with friends and family. Lunch is served daily, prepared by centre members wishing to develop catering skills. Users are given help with their CV and a range of apprenticeships and classes is provided – from literacy and numeracy to theatre, gardening and cookery.
“We try to have a mix of job skills and recreational activities,” says Sarah Pesonen, community events and fundraising coordinator. “We even have a football team: it all helps with confidence and it’s good for mental health. We also run a pop-up café in Chesterton and provide opportunities for centre users to learn cleaning and gardening skills. These are things that don’t necessarily require a vast number of qualifications but can be a useful springboard into employment.”
‘The recession has dealt many ‘ordinary’ people a tough hand and it’s worryingly easy for someone without support to slip into a vicious cycle’
Service manager James Martin explains that a surprising number of users come to the centre illiterate. “A lot of people had bad experiences at school, were excluded or didn’t learn for whatever reason. So we have a creative writing group, a literacy quiz and things like that.”
Wintercomfort also helps the increasing number of Eastern Europeans entering the city who only speak limited English.
Though not an overnight shelter, the centre is open throughout the day and all its users are put on accommodation lists for shelters like Jimmy’s. Still, with waiting lists of up to six months, it would seem another solution is needed to give rough sleepers in Cambridge somewhere to go.
Says James: “Jimmy’s has a lot of turn- aways; it’s quite hard to get in there. So it can be hard to get out of the system and get off the streets.
“The number of homeless has increased in Cambridge over the past year,” he continues. “It was at an all-time low five years ago, but now we’re getting the fallout from the recession.
“There’s a massive mix of reasons that bring people here. We have the entrenched homeless people who have underlying problems which prevent them getting back into mainstream society. Then there are people who have lost their jobs or recently found themselves homeless: perhaps they don’t have that support network of family who can take them in. Some people have issues with drugs and alcohol, but that’s more often a result of homelessness than a cause. They fall in with that sort of crowd when they’re sleeping out, and it takes the edge off it.”
Each day, around 50 individuals use Wintercomfort, and its apprenticeship schemes have already helped many get back on their feet. One individual who helped in the kitchens at the centre is now working at a café in town and another earns a good wage as a caretaker with King Street Housing. Others have gone into the building industry.
“We are able to help some people get back on their feet fairly quickly,” says James. “Most people who come just need time, patience and some help to make the right decisions.”
Wintercomfort is run by volunteers and needs help all year round. Call 01223 518140 or email volunteers@wintercomfort. org.uk. The centre is on Victoria Avenue, Cambridge and is open Monday-Friday 8.30am-3.15pm and Saturday mornings.