The most vulnerable people in our communities often need a hand finding shelter, food and safety. For volunteers at Surviving the Streets UK (STSUK), there are two other parts to the mission: creating hope for the people they come into contact with; and permanent change in the conditions that create homelessness and other disadvantages in the first place.
James Robinson, co-founder of STSUK, feels this passion keenly. “I come from a big family, but we were brought up on the streets,” he says. “Family members suffered from alcoholism and once you’re into that situation, it can be hard to see a way out.”
James worked hard and after pushing through some extremely tough times of his own, he’s built a life and developed skills that took him away from the worst the streets had to offer. But he’s never forgotten what it’s like to feel crushed by circumstance and alone on the streets.
About seven years ago, James decided to do something for people in East Sussex who were still trapped in desperate situations – distributing flasks of hot drinks and sandwiches to homeless people. But as the headlines about food bank use over the past ten years have made clear, more and more people are finding themselves nudged over the edge – putting their, and their families, survival at risk.
So in 2017, James and his brother Peter set up STSUK to take a more systematic approach. “We started out helping a couple of hundred people a week with hot drinks and food,” James says. “Before we knew it, we had volunteers out every day of the week, providing not just food, but sleeping bags and tents across the area.”
Facing up to the challenge
By the start of 2020, volunteers were working round the clock to feed up to 2,000 people a week, as well as offering support and advice to both homeless people and those at risk for other reasons. Then Covid-19 arrived, and everything got tougher.
“For example, there was a lot of panic buying at the start of lockdown, so we lost a huge amount of food that usually comes from supermarkets passing on out-of-date stock,” Says James. While temporary measures to reduce rough sleeping grabbed the headlines, the number of people facing food poverty grew. “Many people in work were on reduced hours, they couldn’t cover the rent and bills, let alone food,” James continues. “We even had people working in supermarkets coming to us for support because their hours were so short.”
If that wasn’t stressful enough, the virus itself meant STSUK volunteers were at risk on their rounds. “Suddenly we had to find £700 to keep our people in PPE,” James says. “We even kept old duvet covers that we could turn into face masks – anything to save a bit of money so we could maintain services.”
One solution that James explored was self-service food-parcel lockers. These digital foodbanks serve those in need 24/7 without needing a volunteer team on site – as well as meaning volunteer hours go further this has big safety benefits during a pandemic.
In terms of costs, digital foodbanks are anything from a hefty £10,000, plus extras to keep them stocked. Those in need can call STSUK and are given a unique code to access a locker for a food parcel with a range of basic items like cereal, UHT milk, tins, dry goods, and toiletries. The lockers are big enough to hold pop-up tents and sleeping bags, too.
Supporting the supporters
Even with a small army of volunteers –most of them survivors of the streets themselves – great community work like this can only happen thanks to donors.
Just as important are cash donors and local business sponsors – including ABN AMRO. Barry Huggett-Robinson, Asset Manager and Jodie Stainer, Client Manager who run the CSR initiatives at ABN AMRO said “We sponsor the More Radio Child of Sussex Awards, and a couple of years ago we were in the audience when James’s daughter won a young person’s award, and we knew immediately that STSUK was one for us.”
The money raised by corporate sponsorship is critical – and there is always a need for more. As well as providing for immediate need the STSUK team is working hard to help people out of the ‘survival’ stage to more secure footings.
“It’s not just food parcels or a sleeping bag,” James says. “We try to help people navigate the benefits system – where complexity is often the reason they’ve ended up in difficulties – as well as supporting people who are seeking refuge from domestic abuse. That means we need to equip our volunteers with range of skills - and training incurs costs.”
The long-term aim, then, is to get ever-larger numbers of people off the streets forever. “Homelessness is very often a mental health problem, not just the lack of a roof over your head,” James stresses. “There are huge issues around mindsets and the structures that support people – or don’t. That’s our next mission: not just more lockers and food banks across the region to solve immediate problems, but lasting solutions. We want to move from being an emergency service to offering real resolutions.”
As the Covid-19 pandemic rumbles on and the economic effects of the lockdowns play out, helping more people off the streets will be a crucial mission in our communities. Supporting volunteers like James and organisations like STSUK is the ideal way for businesses to stay relevant in their communities and build a better future.
Visit STSUK to find out how you can sponsor a digital foodbank locker and to learn more about making an immediate and lasting difference to people who find themselves vulnerable or homeless.