Stevenage Old Town shows Christmas spirit of kindness and compassion with huge effort to help the homeless and less fortunate
- Credit: Archant
Having been a reporter at The Comet for almost exactly a year, it was my absolute privilege to see the Stevenage community come together with a huge heartwarming effort to help the homeless and those in need, with a Christmas party at Baker Street Cafe in the Old Town last night.
The event was organised by a team of volunteers led by Sam Wood and Comet employee Max Taylor.
Cafe owners Alda and David Spooner kindly provided soup and food at the cafe just off High Street, with much of the food donated by the Old Town branch of Tesco. Warming soup, chicken and chips and cakes were served to anyone who wanted or needed them.
Around 100 volunteers gathered bringing donations of blankets, sleeping bags, food, toiletries and Christmas presents.
A team of drivers went out into the cold night across Hertfordshire with care packs - some provided by the Old Town Waitrose – to help those sleeping rough or in temporary accommodation.
Carols were provided by a cheery group of singers from St Nicholas and St Mary’s Churches.
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Town mayor John Lloyd and mayoress Joan Lloyd were also there despite their massively busy schedule.
John Cullen, who has been sleeping rough for a year in Stevenage, was one of many able to get a new hair cut from Rob Hall who opened his The Cutter salon, specially for the evening.
John told me he was able to get a new coat, sleeping bag and rucksack to help him through the tough winter.
He said: “Being homeless can happen to anyone. You suffer from exhaustion when sleeping rough and it can be scary as you get people who want to attack you. It’s not easy.”
John told me he was attacked recently by youths in Hitchin, who stamped on him so hard he ended up with a broken hip.
Although the numbers of homeless and people in need who attended the event were not huge, it was amazing to see those that did, eating hot food and picking up valuable cold weather kit.
One couple stocked up on new sleeping bags, clothes and food before preparing to spend the freezing night sleeping rough in the town centre.
The fact volunteers were able to help them was great to see. But the fact they still have or choose to sleep rough in this day and age, was heartbreaking to witness.
They told me that whilst there is often space available at the Stevenage Haven’s homeless hostel winter overflow where they can sleep on a mattress, it does fill up at this time of year.
They said the permanent beds at The Haven are usually full and it’s also difficult for the hostel to move people on as there is not enough accommodation available, and you have to be resident in the town for five years to be eligible for it.
For people like John who have bad experiences of bureaucracy, this is just too much and they prefer to stay sleeping rough.
Mayoress Joan Lloyd said: “The biggest issue of all is there is not enough housing. We need to build more council houses for people and we need support from the government to do it.
“We need to make sure our homeless people are looked after. Everybody’s home with their families at this time of year but we know homelessness goes on throughout the year.”
I spoke to Ralph who told me how easy it can be to become homeless. He recently split up with his partner so had to leave the family home and has been out on the streets for a week.
He is currently trying to get a bed at the cold weather provision at The Haven.
Max and Sam told me afterwards they were ‘blown away’ by the amount of support for the event and by people’s ‘incredible generosity’. They are sending out a huge thank you to all the volunteers and business who supported them and are hoping to repeat the event in future.
They are currently working with The Haven on the possibility of setting up a soup kitchen and extending the project.
Whilst it is clear that much more needs to be done and some of the holes in the system need to be fixed, it was a fantastic effort.
Some of those who couldn’t afford it, got fed, got a hair cut and picked up valuable winters gear and the hostels in Hitchin and Stevenage were left with much more.
The ripples of this event should spread out across the festive season and maybe make it just that little bit more comfortable for those who are still sleeping rough or living on the edge in 21st century Britain.
Max and Sam would like to say a huge thank you to Alda and David at Baker Street Cafe, The Fish and Chip Shop which offered drinks, Drapers Arms which offered use of its toilets, Pets At Home which donated pet food for people’s animals, Favourite Chicken which donated food, Boots, which gave care packs and J Deamer & Sons Ltd which lent gazebos and patio heaters.
Max and Sam have also set up a fundraising page to raise money to help the homeless across Hertfordshire throughout the festive season. Max has said if it reaches £3,000 he will shave off his famously long locks so from his Comet colleagues, please for heaven’s sake donate now by clicking here.
You can also post your photos, comments and information here.
If you are homeless or in desperate need this Christmas or know someone who is, you can drop in to the council’s walk in centre next to the bus station in the town centre, from Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 5.30pm.
You can also call the council’s out of hours emergency line on 01438 314963.