Leamington Winter Support, a new homeless shelter, opened in Leamington Spa earlier on this term. It hosted 21 people for a meal, with 5 staying overnight on its first day of service.
The volunteer group, spearheaded by Vishal Chauhan and Susan Rutherford, both Warwick Medical students, began as a predominantly student project, with several helpers from Tara and Co., a local estate agency.
However, community interest quickly spread so that involvement is now evenly balanced between University students and local community members. Volunteers chip in and have so far provided the shelter with gas, electricity, plumbing, fire safety, fencing, paints and steam cleaning.
When preparations began from scratch last term, the organisers faced the sizeable challenge of working towards a degree while opening a shelter and keeping in mind all the safety and logistical issues with limited training or experience.
Mr Chauhan told the Boar: “It’s been a valuable experience, but it’s quite stressful, being afraid that we’ve forgotten something.
“The guests are very grateful and express it very loudly.”
“We want to emphasise that students are part of the local community, as are homeless people, rather than us all being in separate compartments,” added Ms Rutherford.
For Leamington Winter Support, the shelter is all about the community effort: guests and volunteers eat together, talk together and work together to improve the house. Several of the guests have offered to install carpets, paint a new fence and come up with fundraising ideas.
This isn’t a top-down handout” – Vishal Chauhan, co-founder of Leamington Winter Support
“It’s so important to us that wherever possible this isn’t a top-down handout,” said Mr Chauhan.
“We are all equal, the lottery of life has just put us in different positions. We also don’t want to make the mistake of looking down on guests, like our lives are perfect and blessed and they are the unfortunate ones with difficult, hard lives.”
“We all have our issues”
“It’s a very dangerous path to go down. We all have our issues; you could be homeless, living on the streets but be a lot happier than someone who is housed.”
“And you could also become homeless at any point in time,” commented Ms Rutherford.
While applications for local homelessness housing more than sextupled between 2010 and 2014 alone, Jonathan Chilvers, a Leamington Green Party councillor involved in last year’s relaunch of the “Killing with Kindness” campaign, takes another approach to the increasingly urgent issue of Leamington’s homeless.
The campaign, Warwick District Council’s push to end begging in Leamington, advised people to refrain from giving money to people directly on the streets and to donate to charities instead.
“It fuels alcohol and drug addiction which destroys family relationships and can kill them,” Mr Chilvers told the Leamington Observer.
“But please don’t ignore people either – something as small as looking someone in the eye, buying them food that you’d buy for yourself, or talking to them, can give people dignity and hope.”
“There are lots of agencies who can support people and the homeless can earn an income selling the Big Issue, which is an opportunity available to all homeless people.”
Nationwide, only 25% of homeless people are in full-time employment, although an overwhelming majority would if they were able, according to recent data from Crisis, a UK homelessness charity.
Up to 80% have mental health problems and 20% of homeless women have done sex work in order to be roofed, while a further 8% have had unwanted sexual relations. Homeless people are up to 13 times more likely to become victims of violence, most often perpetrated by the general public.
The crisis hits young people particularly hard, with as many as 8% of 16-24 year olds in England reported as homeless, the amount of rough sleepers having doubled in last 5 years. The estimated number of rough sleepers nationwide on any one night has itself increased by 55% since 2010.
Although domestic abuse and family disputes are often cited as causes of homelessness, the underlying issues remain the nationwide housing shortages and extensive cuts to housing benefits over the last few years.
Homed, the University homeless charity, which is also run by Mr Chauhan and Ms Rutherford, organises campaigns, fundraisers and events to improve the living conditions of homeless people in and around Leamington Spa.