It’s not all tea and sympathy at the Salvation Army’s Bridge Project.
Trust me, I’ve seen the shelves bare of food, clothes, blankets. Lots of tea, though.
Project manager Beverley Taylor’s wish list is for socks, underwear, hats, gloves, toiletries, tinned food, blankets, bedding, towels.
Now, not just for Christmas. Shame supermarkets don’t run collections alongside those for cats and dogs.
It’s raining cats and dogs so the homeless and vulnerable using this four-day-a-week day centre in the citadel basement on Raikes Road don’t mind cheap tea bags.
It’s hot and wet like the carrot and coriander soup special of the day. Bit posh, that.
“Looks like sick,” says Colin Gillatt, a regular. We’re on first-name terms by the time I bump into him at the Helping Hand bus and soup kitchen.
Friday night at the Cenotaph, another queue of desperate and disparate people needing hot food and warmth before checking into a 20p hotel (public toilet) or under Central Pier – where a chap I met the night before, same windswept spot, at yet another soup kitchen, tells me he bedded down with a mate.
The soup kitchens strike a surreal note opposite the bright lights of bars and take-outs – the homeless emerging from the midst of clubbers and trippers and melting into the shadows.
It’s all run on the kindness of strangers, churches, charities, social enterprises. We can’t list them all but we thank them all – including those we didn’t, couldn’t, speak to.
They know it’s there but for the grace of goodness knows what go we – and could if the economy costs our jobs or benefits, repossesses our homes, breaks up our families.
Amber Sylvester, development manager at the Ashley Foundation, which runs three 28- bed hostels in Blackpool, says the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, but the “band of poor is getting wider”.
The middle-classes are seeking help. One family turned up at the Helping Hands charity the other day.
Back at the Bridge, Colin says he’s got a flat but he’s here for the cheer. “I’d be lost without it.” He may well be.
Major Ian Harris, ordained minister and social worker who heads the service, says the Bridge costs £100,000 to run – all of it funded by local Salvationists and public goodwill. There’s 18 months of funding left. “It sounds good but we usually have three years’ funding,” says the major. “It’s a crisis.”
It means they now target help. “We don’t want to facilitate a certain lifestyle. We must prioritise. Some are on the streets, others one sleep away from such.
“Few do it by choice but some do. We need to help those who will benefit from our help. But the reality is, without money we can’t run the service.”
The project helps 1,500 people a year. Last month it issued 52 food packs, 76 sets of clothes, 52 showers, 23 toiletry kits, gave bread to 345, bedding to 32, chatted with 507 people, supported 429. Not a penny from Blackpool Council or the Government.
That’s a blessing, as it means they can help who they want rather than just the locally connected, but it also makes them the last resort.
The service is under review, an independent report expected by the end of this year. The winter project, an evening centre, open November-February, has been scrapped. Volunteers ran the first, project workers the last two, with one-off funding from council and health authorities. Former addict Steven, now a volunteer, is devastated: “It had such a lovely atmosphere.”
Major Harris says pressure on staff working well over the odds unpaid was “unacceptable”.
Forty are in the Bridge when I drop by; there’s seating for 28, queues outside. Major Harris says staff are “deluged at 30”. Some days doors open at 10am to 120 people, many straight from the streets. It’s open until 2pm Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, doling out food, advice, toiletry packs (usually 45 a month on a three-month rota), budget advice, help from council outreach workers, specialist nursing one day a week, two if lucky – it used to be four days until cutbacks struck. “You try finding GPs to help,” says Bev.
Even specialist HIV-Aids charity Body Positive has folded.
Bev’s two co-workers and volunteers are on the front line. Outreach work Wednesdays, fund-raising talks out of hours, filling bottles bought on eBay “as it’s cheaper” with shampoo, kitting out grotty flats (Helping Hand provides furniture packs), hospital visits, calls for help after hours, clearing out their own cupboards when Bridge stocks run low.
“I’ve got a supportive family,” says Bev. “This my family too. I can’t see Blackpool without the Bridge.”
Colin recommends the 50p pie, or the 75p roast, tea and toast free, extra sugar 5p, as homeless ladle it in for the energy buzz.
I’m ushered to the front, as I was at the evening soup kitchens. I have coffee at Manna’s Bistro above, an NVQ-accredited training facility for students and Bridge clients seen as “untrainable and unemployable” until the Sally Army proved them wrong.
The sermon ends here. We’re out of space but not out of hope. Don’t let the Bridge, Ashley, Helping Hand, Streetlife, Oasis and others run out of funds and time.
Don’t wait for Christmas. Help now. Clear out cupboards for bedding, towels, clothes, buy extra keks, socks, toiletries, even sanitary items – for pity’s sake, some of these women use socks and loo roll for feminine hygiene. These are not self-inflicted walking wounds on society. They are us. As Beverley concludes: “Don’t look down on someone unless you’re helping them up.”
* To help the Bridge, donate at the citadel or call Beverley Taylor on (01253) 299835; www.streetlife-blackpool.co.uk; www.helping-hand.org.uk; www.theashleyfoundation.org.uk; Oasis night shelter 01253 623205.
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