ROUGH sleepers in Harrow and beyond are being helped back onto their feet by a temporary homeless shelter being run entirely by church volunteers.
More than 30 men visited Firm Foundation since it was set up in January at Welldon Centre in Welldon Crescent, where the guests receive a kind ear, a hot meal and a place to put their head down.
Project coordinator Michael Scott, 40, said: “When we take someone in, we offer a minimum of four weeks' stay. We offer them a bed and an evening meal, washing facilities and a laundry service free of charge, and help accessing local services, like benefits. We work with the local authority to try to find them somewhere to live.
“But it's more the simple thing of them having an address. That's been a big help because you can't register for services without a postcode. There's nowhere else in Harrow that provides somewhere for them to sleep and a month ago we had a waiting list.
“We're a dormitory, so we're men-only, but we do have the funds if we had a female came to us who was destitute and unable to get help. We don't have medical staff visiting but we have relationships with practitioners, GPs who are signed up to what we're doing and are happy to have an appointment with our guests.”
The centre is referral only and the men have been invited along by Harrow Council, the six participating churches and other shelters that are full.
“They come from Ealing, Brent and Hillingdon. Most other shelters are church-run and we have links with them and they'll share information about spaces and refer people to us,” said Mr Scott. “At this moment in time we have seven guests and four are from Harrow and we've had over 30 of them come through and more than half of from Harrow.
“They're on the streets. We've heard they've been sleeping in hospital grounds and in woods – they're genuinely homeless. Homelessness is mainly caused by relationship breakdown. It's the indignity of having nowhere else to go. They become depressed, and drugs is a big issue.
“If you mention someone is homeless, the average person will envisage a tramp and there's no-one like that here - you can't tell the volunteers apart from the guests.”
Anyone who accepts a place at Firm Foundation - – a ministry created out of a coalition of seven Harrow churches - does so knowing the rules: they must be on site by 8pm and out by 7am, and alcohol, drug use and anti-social behaviour are forbidden.
“If they have a history of substance abuse, that's fine, we just don't allow it here,” said Mr Scott.
The overnight shelter grew out of a similar scheme run at the same time and in the same location 12 months ago that functioned as a drop-in centre with no sleeping facilities.
Mr Scott said: “One of the churches had an encounter with a man who was homeless in Harrow and that experience taught us there is a greater issue with homeless in Harrow than we were were aware of and we had to address that. If you recognise the need, you have got to serve that need.
“Last year we didn't get planning permission to run this shelter and, also, we were working out whether or not there was a need. Looking back, we wouldn't have been in a position to do this anyway.”
Volunteer Steve Shaw was heavily involved last year but has taken more of a back seat this time around. Each of the participating churches provides the catering for a different night of the week and Mr Shaw co-ordinates the volunteers from St Peter's Church.
He said: “I didn't think there was homeless problem in Harrow, and I thought there might be no more than four or five men each night but there's been 10 people most nights – it's been full or near full most nights. Last year there wasn't any many people so it proves homelessness is on the increase.
“And it's only going to get worse: there's lots of people who have found themselves out of work and also the government benefit cuts and a lack of affordable housing means there's nowhere where people are going to go.
“Every major city where the Olympics has been held, they have moved on the rough sleepers, and the problem could spread to the outskirts of the city as a result.”
Mr Scott said homeless men and women would pass over a drop-in centre for a night shelter with a bed if they had the choice, meaning last year's figures cannot be directly compared.
One of the rough sleepers at the shelter, who did not wish to be named, said: “I've been in the London Borough of Harrow for 22 years. If I didn't come to the shelter, I'd be riding buses all night long. It's good here. I get one meal a day and get to sleep a good seven or eight hours. The volunteers do a good job. I have a small job in the morning and then I have to find something to do for the rest of the day.”
Firm Foundation, which is in the process of establishing itself as a fully-fledged charity, does not receive any funding from the local authorities because it does not want the bureaucracy and responsibility of government funding to interfere with its objectives, although Harrow Council are very supportive of their work. Funding is received, however, from various generous charities and individuals alike.
The last day of the three-month night shelter is tomorrow (Friday) and the scheme has proved a success in helping to eliminate homelessness as well as just managing the effects.
“Actually, no-one who has been along this time who had wanted to get off the streets has returned to the streets,” said Mr Scott. “We're hoping to have the opportunity to do it again next year because we have the experience of doing it this year.”
FIRM FOUNDATION MINISTRY MEMBERS
n King's Church Harrow at St Peter's Church, Sumner Road, West Harrow
n St Peter's Church, Sumner Road, West Harrow
n Elmfield Church, Imperial Drive, North Harrow
n St Paul’s Church, Corbins Lane, South Harrow
n Trinity Church, Hindes Road, Harrow
n All Saints' Church, Uxbridge Road, Harrow Weald
n Roxeth Green Free Church, Coles Crescent, South Harrow