“Me and Jakub have been counting doon th’ days since iss time last week,” laughs a middle-aged man, sunglasses perching on his head, leaning too far in towards the guitar.
“Three nights, two nights, one night. Music group. Haven’t wi’ Jakub? Jakub? Haven’t wi?”
A man mumbles “yes” languorously in a thick European accent, and rattles an egg shaker.
Leanne, music group facilitator, smiles, and straightens her guitar on her knees.
“Right, shall we keep working on the song we started writing last week?”
The group of men around her mutter kindly and nod.
“Okay let’s refresh ourselves on some of the words you suggested that you would like to be in it”.
“I’ve made a list” she says, handing round a pile of papers.
“Tea, food, meals, thank you, help, smile, kindness, welcome, escape from the street life, people are like holes in the floor”.
Upstairs, the kitchen is hot and busy.
Four volunteers move around – scrapping lasagne out of a tin tray, rinsing empty plates, stacking clean mugs – whilst more men jostle at the counter.
“Soup?” “Bread and butter?” “More juice please”.
“Do you want salad with your lasagne?” “I dinna really dee greens”.
That makes volunteer Michelle chuckle. She smiles as she scoops lasagne onto a plate, and hands it, green-free, to its recipient.
He smiles back and turns into the dining room, finding a spare seat. He claps a hand across the back of the man next to him and begins to ask him how his day has been.
The rhythm of knives scraping tomatoes and cheese off plates is broken by laughter. Huddles of men drain cups of coffee and chat, and, in one corner, a man eats alone.
Back in the kitchen, the four volunteers on duty are savouring a lull in the nights’ service after a hectic start.
“It’s always busy to start with” one says as she reaches into the freezer to pull out some ice poles “but it always calms down and we get a rest thank goodness”.
This summer’s unseasonably hot weather is taking its toll. The kitchen is hot, and the dining room is hotter because it’s full.
They all volunteer for different reason - because it feels good to do something good, to make a difference, to help those who are less fortunate – and say that most of the users who come in are always gracious and appreciative.
Some can be difficult, but the majority are happy they have somewhere to go and people to turn to.
“They’re all like us at the end of the day, down on their luck”, Michelle says. “Apparently we’re all only a few pay packets away from being homeless so it could be you or me.”
She is right of course. It’s easy to fall, to find yourself without work, money or a means of support, and for your troubles to escalate.
“They become quite attached to this” she says, gesturing to the small kitchen, and the dining room of tables, chairs, board games, world flags and empty plates, and the safety and security it gives them.
“They don’t like change, but do any of us really?”
Her question lingers.
“Alright Peter, how are yi?” asks a volunteer at the front door. “Are you needing a shower, food, laundry, or all three?” They know one another well and talk to each other like friends.
“Just food” he answers as he lops the stairs to the kitchen. “And I’ll stay for music group”.
He appears to be happy, and a little carefree. On a clipboard, Peter’s name is marked off, as are the services he is going to use tonight.
The next man is less cheerful.
When asked how he is as his name is ticked off, he says “not good”, explaining why in broken sentences.
“Someone already got the flat. Not fast enough. I need them to take my housing benefit”.
He sighs and climbs the stairs slowly.
It’s hard to escape the sense that the difficulty of finding a home is doubled for someone who is experiencing hardship, and the pain and rejection of the process is magnified.
His housing status is recorded, as it is for all service users, whether they are caught between sofa surfing and rough sleeping, or have permanent or temporary accommodation.
“Not all service users are homeless” says Volunteer Co-ordinator Chloe Bartlett, “many of them have homes and work on a temporary, relief or cash in hand basis. But they will be struggling in some way and that’s why they are here”.
The next man is not on the list.
He is given takeaway food and some clothes, and asked to come to the team’s Drop In service the next day if he can, or any other week day.
Chloe explains why:
“All people who use the Street Alternatives service will have been referred here by a member of staff. It’s an emergency service but they need to go to Drop In first. They are put on a list for up to two weeks – there is always a clear end date. Having the end date means they have to re-engage with our staff to stay on the list. Street Alternatives isn’t meant to be long term. It’s to support them while they are working with us to address their issues”.
“Obviously people hear about us on the streets and when someone isn’t on the list, we can check our files to see if they have been to Drop In or spoken to a member of staff in another service, and then take action on what to do”.
Downstairs, in his office, Advice, Information and Support Service Manager, Steve Hughes is listening to the music group sing Amazing Grace.
A variety of accents and intonations meddle through the verses, lilting together in quiet harmony. I once was lost, but now am found. It’s not perfect, but it’s powerful and beautiful.
All the singers are male, except leader Leanne. Steve explains why:
“Males are the majority of homeless people in the UK. Females tend to be more looked after by the authorities or relatives, so we always expect more of a male presence”.
Street Alternatives is part of the wider support services offered by Steve’s team, with many of the men here this evening having been referred from the team’s daily Drop In service.
“We want people to come to Drop In so that we can help with the issues they need help with. At Drop In, everyone meets with a resettlement worker who will assess their needs and help them with things like income support and employment skills and refer them to Street Alternatives if needed. But if someone turns up like they did tonight having heard about the service on the streets, we are reluctant to turn them away.
We’ll sometimes let people in on a temporary basis for the night or, if they don’t meet the criteria, we’ll give them a food parcel. We always, always encourage them to come to Drop In – because we can address their whole needs there”.
When music group is finished, Leanne begins packing up the tambourines, egg shakers and maracas left behind by users.
The music group has been running every Tuesday at Street Alternatives for more than two years, and Leanne stepped in as the interim co-ordinator while Grace, who set up the group was on a sabbatical.
“Tonight has been good” she says. “Everyone is very close and this is a really special group. Each week we work on one or two songs and it really doesn’t matter if it’s good or not because music is all about well-being and expression”.
The service users requested Amazing Grace, showing how much Grace and the music group means to them. They decided to write their own song to mark the Cyrenians’ fiftieth anniversary this year themselves.
This is important as it gives them ownership and focus at a time when they may be missing this from their own lives.
“Music is so powerful” explains Leanne “and it’s great to see an organisation that value that power and have it as a service because it can help emotionally, spiritually and socially. The words they suggested for their song really moved me. It’s clear they get a lot out of being here and being helped.”
When asked for suggestions for lyrics, one user said “people are like holes in the floor” – a metaphor which is entirely true. A person can be like a hole in the floor, broken, troubled and problematic, but, with help, supported to regain control of their lives.
At Street Alternatives, we make sure that people have access to hot food, warm showers and laundry facilities as well as conversation, music and company. We give people access to clothing and toiletries when needed, and try to compel them to let us help in ways beyond their immediate needs. We ensure that anyone struggling does not fall through the holes in the system, and we stop them feeling like they are a problem themselves.
Service user’s names have been changed.