On Wednesday, 11 October, South London Humanists hosted a talk by Andy Fulker. Andy is one of four directors of Sutton Night Watch, which provides hot meals for homeless people 3 nights a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (from 7 to 9.30pm) – and also provides other help and services to homeless people, such as the provision of bags of food, sleeping bags, tents and clothes, and the signposting of other agencies which can offer help and support.

Andy said that he had been involved with SNW for over a year, having been inspired by a television programme about homelessness, and buying a SNW calendar outside Asda. As we are becoming increasingly aware, homelessness is something that can affect all sorts of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. People can find themselves homeless as a result of a separation or redundancy – or after leaving an abusive or broken home, or coming out of the services, or care, or prison, or suffering mental health or addiction problems. And some people develop substance abuse habits as a result of living on the streets. There are many different routes to homelessness, and many different kinds of help and support needed to address it.

SNW has 25 volunteers providing its services to about 25 to 30 people, at a location just behind Sutton railway station. It started out as a voluntary soup kitchen, but is now a registered charity, and has extended the scope of its activities considerably. In addition to offering food and other provisions, Andy said that a vital aspect of the work of SNW is to offer a warm welcome and a friendly chat to all the clients who come to them. People are often in very low spirits as a result of their circumstances, and feel like outsiders to society. Suicide can be a risk. Providing a social hub, as well as practical help, is very important. Clients know that they will be welcomed and never judged at SNW, and most are very grateful for the help they receive (which can sometimes even include volunteers taking clients’ clothes home to wash). But occasionally there can be problems with aggression resulting from substance abuse or mental illness for instance. SNW try as far as possible to avoid banning any clients, but, very rarely, have to do so, to protect volunteers and other clients. (They have access to the Town Centre radio system which can put them straight in touch with the Police is there is any trouble.) He said some homeless people are in receipt of benefits and some beg for money, but, because of the incidence of substance abuse among some homeless people, he recommends that those who wish to give something to homeless people they pass on the street give food items such as sandwiches, or items of clothing, rather than money.

Some homeless people suffer delays in receiving benefits, and this problem has increased since the recent benefits changes. Many people are actually on the streets, while some are “sofa-surfing” because can’t afford and secure accommodation. Some people have lost their benefits because they don’t receive or respond to official communications, and some spend benefits on drink or drugs owing to addiction, so the provisions available from SNW, on the spot and to take away, are vital to all. SNW can accept donations of clothes, shoes and sleeping bags etc. on any of the nights they operate in Sutton, and Andy told a story about a man arriving one evening with no shoes, and plastic bags wrapped round his feet. An appeal for (size 13) shoes was immediately put out on the SNW facebook site, and by the end of the night 5 pairs had been donated, including a pair of Tesco’s own staff boots. One young man came down with a brand new pair of trainers, which proved a little too tight, so he swapped them with the shoes he was wearing, which turned out to fit perfectly.

The Council has a database with details of resources available for the homeless elsewhere, and SNW clients are required to give their names, dates of birth and permission to share that information. But Andy said that some homeless people are reluctant to do so (and there was a mention by an audience member of an issue regarding homeless people without the legal right to be in Britain running the risk of arrest if they provide their details).

Other than a very welcome recent Lottery grant of £10,000, which funded the purchase of a van, SNW is dependent upon donations, and has a donation site on their facebook page . (They also have a twitter account.) They receive generous support from the public, and also support from schools and local businesses etc.. For example they had a recent Harvest festival donation from the Link school, and receive regular food donations from shops such as Greggs and Tescos. Costa also offers support, and Sainburys in Sutton and North Cheam have front of house donations. SNW benefits from community events such as a recent Asda event, and raised £450 at Sutton’s Environmental Fair this year. And it has been adopted as TSB Sutton’s Charity of the Year. But, said Andy, there is a great need for much more substantial funding.
At present, SNW operates under the shelter of a gazebo, which doesn’t really provide adequate shelter, especially in bad weather (and one leg of had to be replaced, at the cost of hundreds of pounds, when it was broken in a high wind just after the gazebo had been bought). Other than the gazebo, SNW have a garage in Carshalton where they can stockpile provisions like sleeping bags and shoes etc.. Andy said that they would very much like to obtain proper premises for their operation so that they could provide a tea room for clients, a hub, where professional services to provide health care etc. could operate, and social enterprises such a upcycling could be set up, to help people to gain work skills and regain self respect. But they are encountering considerable obstacles in finding somewhere suitable. Because of the alcohol and drug problems sometimes associated with homelessness there are difficulties with locations in residential areas (a relevant consideration in respect of one possible option for premises, in the old toilets on Sutton Green, and area subject to development). One venue that could be ideal is the disused wildlife centre in Beddington Park, which is well away from any houses, but, although Andy had heard that viewings of the premises may have taken place, the Council has apparently been unwilling to let SNW view the building.

Andy said that legislation has been, or is being, enacted to require councils to help any homeless person in their borough, and that Sutton Council has been reluctant to do anything which might make the borough more attractive to homeless people. The former mayor of Sutton acknowledged an approach regarding a better location for SNW, but nothing further was heard, despite SNW achieving charity status at the suggestion of the Council. There had been a few people attracted to SNW from Croydon (where assistance is minimal), but only a handful. The need to address the desperate situation of homeless people is very clear, but all too often the response of authorities is not helpful. (In a recent case, a homeless Sutton man was fined £80 for rough sleeping.) Councils do take part in the SWET programme in winter, to provide severe weather shelter for homeless people, but as soon as the weather improves those housed are sent back to the streets.

One important aspect of SNW’s work is liaising with, and connecting clients with, other services which can help them. These include the Salvation Army, which can provide shower facilities twice a week; Inspire drug and alcohol unit; E Compass drop-in alcohol and drug unit, which operates in Sutton on Tuesdays; Sutton Reach, which provides help and support to anyone in the area who has mental health and/or drugs and alcohol problems, and a tenancy support need; SPEAR housing association, which visits SNW on Monday nights, and No Second Night Out, which can provide hostel accommodation in Lambeth for those ready to move up and off the streets. Having to relocate to Lambeth is far from ideal for those with an attachment to Sutton, but there is, at present, no hostel for the homeless in the borough (though Andy said that there are plans for the Council to open one in partnership with SPEAR). SNW can help with form-filling for those moving up and on. Andy spoke of the obstacles to homeless people getting into accommodation, which include substance abuse, the unwillingness of landlords to take benefits as rent, and habituation to life on the streets. Andy spoke of one older client who has long been living in a local churchyard; it is becoming a matter of urgency to get him housed for the sake of his health, but each time he agrees to an appointment to discuss helping him get into accommodation, he changes his mind. Nevertheless, there are success stories; contact with SNW can be the vital first step, and they will continue to offer support once the person has been housed, to help them with the transition.

The Shoe Box Appeal

Andy then went on to talk about Christmas, which is an important time of the year for SNW, especially because it can be a particularly difficult time for homeless people. SNW run a shoe box appeal to collect Christmas gifts for all their clients in Sutton, and also for other homeless people in London. They ask that people cover the boxes and lids separately in Christmas wrapping paper, and mark the side of the box clearly to indicate whether the gifts are for a man or a woman. (Other boxes or bags are acceptable as well.) Then fill the box with appropriate gifts depending on the gender. The kinds of gifts which are very welcome are hats, gloves, scarves, socks (preferably thermal), underwear, shampoo, comb, shower gel/body wash, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, lip balm, razors, tissues/wet wipes, torches (preferably wind up type), notepads and pencils, playing cards, chocolate, sweets and cereal bars. Once filled, the boxes should have a Christmas card added and then be sealed with sticky tape and delivered to one of the collection points that SNW has arranged. The collection points are at Byrnes Pie, Mash and Eel House, 5 Ross Parade, Wallington, SM6 8QG; Sugar and Spice on the top floor of the St. Nicholas Centre, Sutton, SM1 1AY; Volks Autos Ltd., 3 Kempton Road, Sutton, SM3 9QL, and 71 Robertsbridge Road, Carshalton, SM5 1AH. The appeal commences at the beginning of November, and the closing date for receipt of the boxes is the end of November. On 8 December, SNW will be taking a lot of the boxes up to London in a decommissioned routemaster bus, to distribute to homeless people there. Full details of the Shoe Box Appeal, and other SNW news are available on the SNW Facebook site (see below).

At the end of his talk, Andy had to rush away to SNW because it was one of their open nights. We thanked him very much for taking time out of his busy evening to come and speak to us, and a number of the audience said that they would be contributing shoe boxes, and turning out their wardrobes to find suitable clothing to donate to SNW. Since then, we, South London Humanists, have sent out an appeal to all members to contribute to the Shoebox appeal, and we will be organising the filling of prepared boxes with members’ donations.

We are very grateful to Andy and SNW for responding to our invitation to speak, and giving us such a valuable and informative talk on their wonderful work.