‘Thanks for the tea, but thank you more for the smile’

MSE Rose volunteering at a homeless centre

MSE Rose volunteering at a homeless centre

MoneySavingExpert.com is aimed at helping people from all walks of life to save money, no matter how large or small the pot. But the most extreme form of poverty – homelessness – is sadly something that’s desperately difficult to solve.

It’s a painful social and economic issue. Hundreds in London sleep rough every night, and many more across the UK. I spent the day volunteering at a day centre for the homeless along with MSE’s Debs Baker to find out more.

Homelessness affects ‘rich’ areas too

The charity-run Ace of Clubs centre is right where you wouldn’t expect it. It’s in south London’s affluent, trendy Clapham – two minutes from the high street’s fashionable eateries, just along from a Waitrose, behind a residential street where average property value’s a cool half-million pounds. Yet the centre itself is hidden from view.

Despite its well-heeled surroundings, job losses and Government cuts mean the number of people coming to it for help has more than doubled in the past year. Its building may be small and unassuming, but the work it does is far larger.

Last year it provided 20,000 meals, helped 92 people off the streets and into accommodation, and 36 people into rehabilitation from addiction. It helps up to 100 people a day – more during its busiest winter months – with hot meals, showers, clean clothes, housing help and more.

A space to chat over tea

In spite of the problems it’s working with, the centre’s atmosphere is bright and friendly. Several of its volunteers were sent to do community service there – but found it so rewarding, they come back to help in their free time.

We spent the day helping prepare and serve meals, keeping the centre clean, serving tea and getting to know the centre’s staff and visitors. What struck both of us was how grateful they were. One simply said to Debs: “Thank you for the tea, but thank you more for the smile.”

While serving, I was reminded how real and visible human hunger is. When each person sat at the communal tables to eat, there was little talk. Several returned immediately and bought a second full meal, eaten in silence and relief. For many, it was their only meal of the day.

After the meal, the centre became a space for visitors to chat over tea, and a game of Scrabble got going. An older man who’d found a working blender plugged it in and made a smoothie. Many came to the kitchen area to clear their own plates and thank us personally, and one lady took me outside to meet her friendly Jack Russell.

All are welcome

As the centre isn’t council-funded, it doesn’t have to refuse help to anyone who isn’t from the area. Its doors are open to all – whether homeless, elderly, socially and economically vulnerable, or all three. But this also means its funding sources aren’t guaranteed.

Instead, it relies on trust funds and donations, and local supermarkets and cafes for leftover food. A team of volunteers and homeless members have transformed its garden into a tidy allotment with courgettes, tomatoes, beetroot, chillies and more, providing fresh vegetables and herbs.

Though it gives bread to anyone who needs it, two-course hot meals are £1 each, or afternoon soup and sandwiches are 50p. This helps offset its running costs – and ensure those in need don’t become over-dependent on handouts.

More importantly, as centre manager Sarah explained, the contributions mean anyone who can’t afford it needs to come and talk to a member of staff – a valuable first point of contact. If someone’s in a desperate situation, meals are free, while support from the team helps get them out of crisis.

Art classes, health clinics… and debt help

The five permanent members of staff work tirelessly to help in any way they can, with art and pottery classes, music workshops, bike repairs and even a new computer suite on the way. Signs on the walls say “Can’t face opening your mail? Bring it in and we’ll open it with you” – practical first steps for those struggling to cope with mounting debts, numeracy or literacy issues.

The centre also provides invaluable, free weekly physical and mental health clinics. Finding dignity and feeling human again are the first steps towards new opportunities, via welfare and employment advice.

Ace of Clubs is just one small charity in a big area, working with an even bigger problem. But its commitment to acting locally, and taking practical steps to help the most financially vulnerable, is something we should all learn from. As one volunteer reminded me, given the wrong circumstances, anyone could find themselves in the same position.

How can I help?

Local homelessness charities are often desperately in need of donations, whether cash, food and clothing, or just your time. Ace of Clubs says while it has a much-needed influx of storable food at harvest time, it’s all but used up by summer, making feeding those in need an extra struggle.

To help find volunteering opportunities near you, the Do-it website lets you search by location and area of interest, while Gov.uk also has useful resources. Each centre’s needs will be different, so contact yours to check, and let it know what you can offer.

If you or someone you know doesn’t have somewhere safe to stay, or is at risk of homelessness, you aren’t alone. There are resources to help – don’t panic, but act as soon as you can.

  • Housing and homelessness charity Shelter has a free phone helpline on 0808 800 4444 which can give immediate help, plus an Advice directory to find local advice centres.
  • Contact your local council’s housing department, which may be able to provide emergency housing, and should be able to advise on shelters in your area, see Gov.uk.
  • Find local hostels, day centres and other support services via the Government-funded Homeless UK website.

Thanks to Ace of Clubs for having us. Please share your thoughts below or in the forum discussion.