Homelessness: Coming in from the cold for a happy Christmas

FOR most of us the biggest worry on Christmas Day will be whether or not to have that second helping of Christmas pudding. But, for a minority of people, it will be a day spent worrying about where their next meal will come from and if they can find somew

FOR most of us the biggest worry on Christmas Day will be whether or not to have that second helping of Christmas pudding.

But, for a minority of people, it will be a day spent worrying about where their next meal will come from and if they can find somewhere warm to sleep at night.

One of the many places helping homeless people across the festive period and throughout the year is North Herts Sanctuary, a night shelter in Nightingale Road, Hitchin.

This week our reporter Hannah Gray went along to find out about the good work being done there, and what Christmas will be like for the staff, clients and volunteers.

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NORTH Herts Sanctuary is more than just a bed and a warm place to stay at night.

True, the shelter well deserves its name because for homeless people across the district it is indeed a sanctuary, offering a bed in a shared room, delicious home-cooked meals, washing and laundry facilities and even a TV and pool room.

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But its mission is not just to provide people with somewhere to rest their weary heads but also to start trying to solve some of the wider and more difficult issues they face.

Clients coming along to the centre sign up for an eight-week stay, and have to pledge to work with the shelter to address their problems.

Those who do take steps to help themselves are allowed to stay a bit longer but those who don't are asked to leave when the eight weeks are up.

As shelter manager Judy Recontre explains: "I haven't got a magic wand I can wave and solve all their problems.

"Whatever their problem is the key is that they have the power to change but you've got to accept them and get them to think 'yes, I could do things differently'."

As part of their pledge to help themselves, the residents have to go along to some of the drop-in sessions offered at the shelter three afternoons a week.

Here people can receive help with things like filling in forms, making calls to the council, as well as support and advice on dealing with drug and alcohol problems.

Plans for the future include providing even more services during the day including lessons in computer skills, basic life skills and even art classes.

The shelter started its life in Letchworth GC in 1992 and moved to its current location in 1999.

It can accommodate up to 14 men and three women at any one time and is generally full.

From July 2005 to June 2006 it helped 136 clients.

All of this was done with a team of just eight paid staff members and a dedicated band of volunteers who do everything from cook the dinners to sit on the board of trustees.

Judy Recontre became the shelter's manager in 1998 and has noticed a marked change in the nature of the clients she helps.

She said: "When I first started working with the homeless it was mainly people with large drug addiction problems but I would say over the past two or three years it's changed slightly and it's more around people with mental health issues."

While the shelter does still help people with drug or alcohol addictions, another growing band of those using its facilities are young adults whose parents find it hard to cope, who come in for some respite care.

Judy explained: "Parents don't seem to be able to cope with adolescence.

"We're also getting a number of adults from care. It's really difficult working down here because behind each person and their reason for homelessness there is often a very sad story."

Judy is the first to admit that not everyone who walks through the door leaves the shelter a changed person.

"There are some people that think they know best. There are some people you can't help no matter what you do.

"They've chosen a way of life and unfortunately sometimes you have to accept that," she said.

But there are some notable success stories.

Judy said: "We've recently worked very hard with a gentleman who was 64. He came to us with quite a history but we tried to address what problems there were.

"We've referred him and got him statements from organisations that supported us and we eventually got him rehoused in supported housing, but it took us 18 months to achieve that.

"At the end of the day it makes it all worthwhile because we've got someone really comfortable in supported housing and hopefully he will make a success of it."

For many of Judy's clients, Christmas is a time of year which makes an already difficult life even harder.

But staff and volunteers at the shelter put time and energy into making the festive season as cheery and comfortable as possible.

Judy says: "It's going to be a traditional Christmas.

"What you have to remember is that although this is only a night shelter while they're staying here it's their home."

The shelter operates an open house policy on Christmas Day, allowing not only homeless people but previous clients and anyone who is alone to come along and enjoy a traditional dinner, games and to watch TV.

Judy said: "It's not right that anyone should be on their own over Christmas. "They don't have to be alone because it's an open house.

"You don't have to live here, you can come down and help out and join in and be in a happy, family atmosphere."

* The shelter receives some funding from the Government but is always in need of donations. Cheques should be made payable to North Herts Sanctuary and sent to 25 Nightingale Road, Hitchin, SG5 1QU. Donations can also be made via the website, www.northhertssanctuary.org.uk

Donations of food including tea and coffee, tins of fruit and custard, cereals, biscuits, plus bed linen, towels and toiletries are also gratefully received. Ring the shelter on 01462 435835 for more information.

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