St Theresa's: Cold comfort for the homeless in big freeze

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On Tuesday the ET launched an appeal to help save St Theresa's House, Peterborough's only day centre for the homeless. Ann Molyneux-Jackson finds out how vital its services are, especially at this time of year, and why your help is so important.

On Tuesday the ET launched an appeal to help save St Theresa's House, Peterborough's only day centre for the homeless. Ann Molyneux-Jackson finds out how vital its services are, especially at this time of year, and why your help is so important.Doug Styles worked for Barclays Bank for 30 years dealing with people, like company directors, who had money. But since taking on the job as centre manager at St Theresa's House, the tables have turned.

For Doug, who took on the role at the centre in the city's Manor House Street, when he was made redundant a decade ago, is now dealing with those who don't have much at all.

He is also facing the challenge of a cash crisis during the next financial year when there is predicted to be a shortfall in St Theresa's finances of 60,000.

"What we are saying to the general public and the city council is that unless we receive help, there is a real likelihood of the charity not so much ceasing to exist as reducing services even further, and that does not make it a viable proposition," said Doug.

"If we kept the day centre running on the current basis, then reserves would run out in a year's time. Clearly we don't want that to happen and want to make steps to ensure that the homeless services continue as long as possible."

ET Campaign:

Help save St Theresa's centre in Peterborough for the homeless

If that wasn't bad enough, there is another threat to the charity. The lease on the present building expires in June next year, and if alternative premises cannot be found, then the worst case scenario is that St Theresa's would disappear from the city after 20 years championing the cause of the homeless.

It is not the first time Doug has had to cope with a financial problem during his time at the helm at St Theresa's.

Five years ago, Peterborough City Council withdrew its funding for the charity and staff had to be made redundant.

Then to reduce overheads in 2008, the centre had to reduce the time it was able to open from eight to six hours and, as a result, the previously full-time staff became part-time.

They weathered that storm and Doug Styles is determined that the charity should carry on with its work providing a place of comfort, food, counselling, housing advice and activities for homeless people in the city.

"It is our fervent aim to continue with a day centre provision," he said.

"This is a unique service in Peterborough. There is no one else offering a service during the day."

He added: "Can you imagine if people had nowhere to go.

"Someone somewhere would have to pick up the day care provision, and there would be more deaths on the street from hyperthermia."

Yesterday the ET revealed that the council had rejected the idea of resuming its funding.

Councillor Peter Hiller, cabinet member for neighbourhood, housing, community and development, said: "St Teresa's previously received a lot of funding from the council.

"But as the population of the city changed, we have identified more effecitve and inclusive ways of dealing with not just the homelesss, but all the associated issues that create it, such as drug abuse."

The majority of rough sleepers are migrant workers from Eastern European countries.

"They are having a major impact on the city, and we are not the only agency that has been affected," said Doug.

"A big proportion of these are non-English speakers and that puts a strain on resources and they have no access to social benefits.

"Many of them are low skill workers, living off casual work and they have been exploited or not registered properly."

"There has been an increase in numbers in the last three to four years primarily because of the influx of migrant workers at a time when we are in recession and donations are dropping.

"Funding is on and off from charitable trusts because of the economic situation, and we are finding it increasingly difficult to raise money outside of the city, which puts more pressure on Peterborough residents and companies to support their local homeless charity.

"If we relied on donations from sources outside the city, we wouldn't be able to exist."

Sources of funding close to home include a charity shop in Park Road, charity events and public subscriptions.

Another source of income is the Dion Fund, the charitable arm of the Irish Embassy, which pays for general running expenses, because more than 20 per cent of clients have an Irish background (going back to their grandparents).

The service provided by St Theresa's is a lifeline to homeless people and rough sleepers, particularly in the winter, when numbers coming through the door increase by 20 per cent.

At this time of year, staff and volunteers will see 120 people each day, compared to 85 to 90 in the summer.

There is a temporary respite for these people at night if the temperature is predicted to be zero or below zero for three consecutive nights.

Then rough sleepers in the area have to be housed by law in bed and breakfasts and hotels, whether they have access to benefits or not.

There is also an idea that, with the help of Peterborough City Council, St Theresa's could be opened up between 10pm and 8am to provide warmth and shelter during these extreme conditions.

The charity offers an invaluable service at Christmas time.

"It is a very emotional time of year, and a lot of people regard us as their family," said Doug.

"The build up to Christmas is always frenetic.

"We served 70 meals in one day, and on December 24 we had a Christmas party with Santa, presents and a karaoke in the afternoon.

"We had a wonderful response to our appeal for toiletries and chocolate and we were able to give it away, all wrapped up, to people who genuinely appreciated it."

Although Doug wishes the charity had enough money to extend the hours when

St Theresa's can stay open, he rejects the idea of a 24-hour centre.

"We try to encourage individual clients to take responsibility for their lives and to do something about their situation," he said.

"If we were open 24/7 it would encourage dependency, and they wouldn't have to go out and sort things out for themselves."

He added: "We try to give people the confidence to overcome their issues, but it is up to them to sort their life out."

Doug is also aware that the charity cannot reach all of the homeless people in Peterborough.

"The rough sleepers are just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

"There are a lot of hidden homeless we don't know about. There are the sofa surfers, who move from one place to another, sleeping on friends' settees, and there are a lot more people sleeping on the street than you can physically see."

Doug says the experience of working with homeless people has changed him – for the better.

"Working here has made me more tolerant and more understanding of the problems people have on the streets," he said.

"The homeless are not the pariahs of society, they shouldn't be avoided, they should be helped. Many people will bracket them as drug addicts or alcoholics, but many are genuinely homeless people that need support to overcome their problems."

You can help

Anyone interested in a position on the board of trustees at St Theresa's should contact chairwoman of the board Sue Watters, through the charity.

Volunteers are always needed, even if they can only spare a day a month, for a range of tasks including reception duties, light office duties, working in the shop, befriending, making hot drinks or driving the van.

Donations of the following items are always needed – clothes, tins or packets of food for emergency food parcels, basic items of furniture for when people move into accommodation such as chairs, mattresses or single beds, bric-a-brac for selling in the charity shop or items for selling in St Theresa's eBay shop.

For more details, call 01733 894989 or 893762.

ET Campaign:

Help save St Theresa's centre in Peterborough for the homeless