Are you firing up the central heating yet? The winter is slowly seeping in, mannequins model beautiful new coats in twinkling shop fronts, restaurants advertise “winter warmer” specials and children waddle to school encased in thick, woolly hats, gloves and scarves. However for many across our country there is no escape from the bitterness of winter, as they attempt to find the warmest and driest part of the streets from shop doorways to car park stair ways, to rest and gather their strength.
In June I came across a local group called “Caring for Cambridgeshire’s Homeless.” I followed the updates of their work with the homeless through Facebook and was in awe of them and so I signed up to volunteer. The group’s aim is to go out on the street at least 4 times a week. This comprises of a small group of 2 to 3 volunteers taking hot drinks, some basic food items such as sandwiches, crisps and snacks and home-baked food as well as soup, to those that are homeless or vulnerable. Other essentials such as toiletries, hats, underwear, socks, gloves, sleeping bags and items of clothing are also taken. The group relies solely on donations and each day volunteers across our county help make and donate the items above and deliver or arrange delivery to those volunteers out that evening. The donations are aided by the Facebook group where volunteers request help with sourcing their trolley for the evening. Local Tesco Express stores also donate weekly. The group encourage volunteers never to go out alone and never to hand out money, alcohol, razors, scissors, tobacco, cigarettes or medication. The group is focused on team work and the support of one another. Whether somebody is donating a loaf of bread or walking the streets handing out the goods, each volunteer’s role is as valuable as the other.
A Typical Evening as a Volunteer
After checking the rota and putting your name down for one of the evenings, the lead volunteer (one of the more experienced members of the group) will contact those going out and arrange a meeting place and any items that they need arranging for the night. Armed with a “super trolley” loaded with food items and back packs and pull along shoppers full of clothing and other essentials, we make our way into the city. It’s never long until we come across our first “street friend” as we refer to them. By the end of the evening, which may take around 2 to 3 hours, we could have seen up to 50 homeless and provided them with whatever is needed from our supplies, but most importantly a friendly face and a chat. This is something I feel is most important, some may not want to talk and that is of course fine, we simply hand them their food and wish them well. However for some of our street friends the conversation is just as important as the food. Ensuring we never pry or ask them for their stories we lend a listening ear and engage in all different types of conversation from what books they are reading (there are many readers on the street), to the weather and more jovial talk. Other services such as Jimmy’s Shelter which offers emergency accommodation for the homeless and Winter Comfort who provide meals as well as other services, all serve the Cambridge area and we always pass this information on to our street friends. At the end of the evening one of the volunteers will write a brief account of the night’s events on to the group’s Facebook page, ensuring all names and details are completely anonymous.
What shocked me the most after my first evening volunteering was the variety of people I met. Although some may suffer from addiction and mental health problems, many do not. Many have worked and have had families and have just been dealt with a bad card and can not find a way out of the situation that has encompassed them. I have spoken to a few who are actually in active work, yet sleep on the streets each evening because they do not have a home and can not afford one. No matter what social class, age or background our street friends come from there is one thing they all have in common and that is gratitude. I have never been out on a night where we have not been thanked by anybody we have handed food over to. The kindness and thoughtfulness that the majority display is remarkable at times and something I take with me each evening on the way home.
I can not abide snobs. I live in a beautiful area which is predominantly middle class which unfortunately at times meant my cockney accent is met with slight hostility from a handful of insignificant creatures. Likewise on the streets of Cambridge I have come face to face with some abhorrent attitudes and people. Sneers, laughter and jibes can be heard on an evening volunteering which is one of the saddest parts of the job. However, juxtaposed to the vile vermin that belittle our street friends, are those who stop to question our work and either thank us or ask to become involved. Groups of students and other individuals may walk past and donate a sandwich or drink for those sleeping rough and other small acts of kindness that go such a long way.
Cambridge is a beautiful city, steeped in history and lined with towering, architectural masterpieces. Designer shops and boutiques filter through the main body, along with fancy eateries and bustling, trendy bars. It always seems such a peaceful, calm city to me in comparison to my London roots and many times I wander through the green open gardens which sever the busy shopping areas and marvel at the perfection of this city. Nonetheless, I urge you to look closer next time you walk through your town or city. Look closer into that shop doorway and notice that crumpled heap of clothing as a man who may have lost their wife and didn’t know how to carry on without her. Look closer behind that wheelie bin and see the woman with no shoes who slipped through the system and whose mental health problems went unnoticed. Look closer at that man begging with a cardboard sign and see the pain and horrors he may have witnessed through his eyes as a war veteran. Many times I do not have the money myself to make sandwiches or provide hot drinks but a friendly smile may go just as far on a cold winter’s day. Thank you for reading and if you are local to Cambridge and would like to help details can be found on the Facebook group Caring for Cambridgeshire’s Homeless.
P.S. I have been nominated for a UK Blog Award! If you would like to vote for me I shall love you forever and grant you three wishes… Here is the link….. No signing up or entering emails or anything just a simple click and then click the heart! https://blogawardsuk.co.uk/blog_award_category/lifestyle/page/43/