Feature “People can die if they’re out in these temperatures"
Chilly last weekend, wasn’t it? So much so that Sheffield’s ‘Severe Weather Emergency Protocol’ came into force.
Bundled up and bearded as he was on a freezing Friday night, councillor Jim Steinke was immediately offered a hot drink and sandwich when he turned up at Sheffield Soup Kitchen on King Street. Sheffield Council’s Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods and Community Safety politely declined, as several dozen Sheffielders in hats, coats and hoods arrived to be served by Shirley and Derek Newman of Sheffield’s Central United Reformed Church. The atmosphere was overwhelmingly cheerful. “Do you take a Nectar card?” asked one visitor. “If you don’t come out and do these things, you don’t see these people, and it’s easy to shut your eyes to it,” said Shirley. The Sheffield Soup Kitchen began last century off West Street, and after moving into the city centre, is now open every single night between 8 and 9pm. 17 city churches are involved, said founder Bobbie Walker, with around 50 different volunteers every week serving hot soup and coffee, biscuits and sandwiches to Sheffield’s homeless. The volunteers may or may not be churchgoers themselves, said Bobbie. For example, Shirley and Derek’s son David, and his wife Deborah. “It’s such a social injustice, it just feels wrong,” said Deborah. “Everything is all about Brexit at the moment, but what is being missed is all this.” Nevertheless, after working with the homeless for over thirty years, Bobbie Walker said: “The council is doing its best. And I think things are getting better.” Shirley and her family joked and chatted with ‘clients’ of all ages. Many have mental health problems, she noted, and many drink or take drugs, including spice in recent years. Quite often homeless people have been in the armed forces, or have been left to their own devices after leaving jail, she added. The Severe Weather Emergency Protocol is also known as ‘Weather Watch’. The scheme involves the council, the NHS, South Yorkshire Police and Fire Service and volunteer-led organisations such as the Soup Kitchen, the Archer Project and Ben’s Place working together to offer support and direct homeless people to organisations that can help, particularly in freezing weather. For example, a night shelter at the Eyre Street fire station is run by South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue and the Red Cross when projected temperatures drop below zero for several hours. “People can die if they’re outside at these temperatures. It’s as crude as that,” said Jim Steinke, who praised all the volunteers and agencies involved. “Organisations like the Soup Kitchen really are saving lives,” he said. Jim volunteered and then worked for the Shelter homelessness charity for several years before joining Sheffield Council, and points out the complexities of the issue. “In a way, rough sleeping is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. People on the streets include former soldiers, victims of domestic violence, people who’ve been thrown out by private landlords, older people who’ve had to leave their homes through mortgage arrears, people whose businesses have failed, and an increasing number of young people leaving the care system with nowhere to go. Many of those on the streets at night do have accommodation of some kind, but they don’t always use it, often because they feel it’s dangerous or insecure, Jim said. He added that the council is aiming to build 1,600 new homes, and reassign some older buildings to make them suitable for the homeless. “There aren’t enough houses, but we need the right houses at the right size in the right places with the right support,” he said, adding: “We do what we can in the context of the budget cuts.” After giving one of the visitors her hat, Shirley and team handed over their kitchen kit to Dennis of the Victoria Hall ready for Saturday’s Soup kitchen. “When you’re in your house and it’s cold and wet outside, and you think there are people out there, it makes me so glad to know that one of the churches is also out there providing food,” she said. “But it’s not nearly enough.” More information is at http://www.helpushelp.uk