Most of us will be looking forward to a traditional Christmas this year: Carols, turkey, presents, a tree, and so on. But not everyone will be able to enjoy the festive season in this way. On the Friday before Christmas, I visited P.A.T.H. (People Assisting Torbay’s Homeless) at their base on Union Street in Torquay, to speak to Kath about what is being done to help homeless people during this time.
P.A.T.H. was set up 4 years ago, Kath told me, and “was born on the streets with a flask.” What has changed in that time is what P.A.T.H. is able to provide. “What we’re providing now is more of a hub. We can calmly rationalise more crisis situations in a warm environment inside somewhere where they feel safe.” This hub can provide not only hot drinks and donated food, but also access to statutory services, such as the Rough Sleepers Initiative and a local Housing Officer, who visit P.A.T.H. and can offer assistance to homeless people on-site. “You’re going into their environment, so it’s much easier to talk to someone when they’re calmer and they’re more relaxed,” Kath said. “By having stability here, you can then start to build a network of support where it’s coming to the guys that are in crisis that may not have a phone, may not know what time it is… They still need help, whether they miss their appointments or not, they still must have the help, and so it’s now a brilliant opportunity for different services to be able to connect in here.”
P.A.T.H.’s support comes from a variety of sources, not least of all donations from members of the public and local businesses. “We’re very, very blessed really,” Kath told me. In addition, food that is at the end of its shelf life is supplied by “food partners” such as local bakeries, supermarkets, hotels, and food factories. More is provided by volunteers on a “sandwich rota”, who offer sandwiches, as well as items such like fruit and crisps. All of this allows P.A.T.H. to operate every day, 365 days a year.
Kath also pointed out that there are food donation bins which can be found in supermarkets, where members of the public can donate items to help supply P.A.T.H.’s food bank. “We cater for all different problems where people haven’t got food available to them. It might be affordability, it might be lack of gas and electricity, it could be that they don’t have a kitchen, it could be that they don’t have a roof over their head. Whatever the circumstances, we can provide food here for different people’s circumstances.”
How does seasonal change affect the needs of the homeless? “Homelessness is homelessness, whatever time of the year it is, but there are different things that become important. So during the summer months we find that the understanding from the general public goes down… you’ll find that there’s less support during the summer from the general public.” Among the problems the homeless experience in the summer are sunstroke, the risk of violence, and trench foot.
Winter brings another range of problems. “Things change because it’s even more life threatening.” During periods of extreme weather, Kath explained, the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) is activated by the council, requiring accommodation to be found for those sleeping rough. However, this is only an emergency measure, and a life on the streets can bring with it a lower life expectancy. “Preserving life, and preserving somebody’s life so that they still have the chance to live their hopes and dreams out naturally, it’s just so important,” said Kath. “Everybody deserves to feel safe, and everybody really should be housed, everybody deserves to have a life where there are opportunities. As soon as somebody dies, that’s completely snuffed out. It’s always incredibly sad for all of us volunteers here when we lose somebody.”
So what, if anything, is changing? “The cogs are turning quite slowly, but they are working in a very positive direction.” For example, there are plans to increase the amount of affordable housing in Torbay. However, Kath also pointed out that housing is just the start of the solution: “It isn’t just about housing, it’s the support that goes with it. If you don’t have the support that goes with it, you’re setting somebody up to fail… Somebody that’s homeless will have very complex needs, and there are no two people with the same needs exactly… that’s why it has to be customised to them.”
Finally, I asked about P.A.T.H.’s plans for Christmas. Kath was keen to stress that the perspective on the streets is different than the perspective of most of the general public: “People when they’re in crisis, they don’t care about Christmas… there is no Christmas. All they’re interested in is staying alive, being warm, being around people that don’t judge them, those are the Christmas presents that they want, and not being hungry.” That said, P.A.T.H. will be putting on a Christmas dinner in two sittings, with volunteers travelling around the Bay to collect homeless people from the area. In addition, P.A.T.H.’s food bank – which does not require a referral to be accessed – will be open this Christmas. What it’s all about, Kath told me, is, “promoting kindness and taking responsibility as a community.”
P.A.T.H. is open at the Vanilla Pod Restaurant in Torquay from 2pm to 8pm, 365 days a year.
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