Final year medical student and co-founder of Leamington Winter Support, Susan Rutherford has been devoting her time to helping the homeless since the shelter opened in 2015. Ellice Mansfield sat down with her to find out exactly why and how she set up the shelter, and what students like us could be doing to help.
Why did you feel there was a need to open the shelter?
Susan: Myself and a friend in the year above did some work with local homeless shelters independently and noted that there weren’t many nights covered. It was coming up to winter and we were concerned about the amount of people stuck sleeping rough in the cold.
How did you open the shelter?
S: We approached the people that already ran the night shelter that was in place, some members of the local council that were in housing, local estate agents and people from health forums. We organised a meeting, it was agreed that something should be done (and could be done) and with the support of those invested in fixing the problem we felt more confident in going forward.
We were given an empty property from some landlords for free and the estate agent helped us a lot in terms of filling in the paperwork for the insurance. With their help, we were ready to open in around three months.
What are the costs involved in running and maintaining your services?
S: On an average night, it costs about £2 per guest, per night to run the shelter. It costs us £100 a month for utilities, but luckily we received funding to help us with that cost. We received a lot of food donations but we often need this to be supplemented by fresh food. The main suppliers of our meat option is Aubrey Allen the Butchers, whilst TJ’s Bar and Grill give us our vegetarian option. We have just signed up to the fair share scheme at Tesco – they give us great fresh food!
Regarding the guests, are there any trends you see in those that regularly use the shelter?
S: First of all, we get around 30 people a night through the door with usually 10-15 staying overnight. Most of those are men and we have people from early 20’s to early 50’s. Most have a drug or alcohol dependency. Often, people think this is the cause of homelessness. However, often it is the effect:c it is what they do to cope with the situation they are in. That can be a big problem. There are a lot of guests that have medical conditions that they are not getting attention for, mostly because they aren’t registered with GPs or can’t get to a doctor because they don’t have bus money or a bicycle to get there.
How important do you think housing is in supporting those with drug and alcohol problems?
S: I could not imagine trying to get clean if you are sleeping rough and don’t know where you’re going to be, one day to the next. I believe that if people are provided withstability in regards to housing, people can work on their issues and access services for further support. It is the same in regards to drug addiction – you will struggle to find work, if you struggle to find work and then keep a job down, you will struggle to accumulate money and keep a house. There is a waiting list for the council but this can take a long time. In the meantime, you can be left to try and solve these problems yourself.
Personally, do you find that dealing with things like this can cause an emotional toll or difficulties with your studies?
S: It can definitely be difficult. You go into the project knowing that this might be the case but that is something that I still find difficult at times. Sometimes I want to throw everything into the shelter. But, if you don’t focus on the reason you came here – to study – then you aren’t helping people. Speaking from the perspective of a medical student, it is important to gain a qualification that means in later life you will be able to do that little bit more. While it is tempting to want to focus on this full time, it’s important to keep studying to be more useful in the long run.
How do you find the reaction from the local community?
S: I can actually be overwhelmed by the amount of support we get. Often we will put appeals out on Facebook and will receive a huge response. The students have been great, and out of the volunteers that we have the majority are students; although that does mean we do struggle during non-term times. We have really great local volunteers but it is often difficult to make up the numbers, especially overnight as they have families and other commitments to consider.
You need a minimum of 16 volunteers to stay open overnight. Do you regularly meet that quota?
S: It can be very difficult to manage the overnight. We have been worried recently that we won’t be able to continue to run the shelter overnight as we can’t get people to sign up. We’ve had to close once before where we were unable to make up a safe amount of volunteers to look after everyone, which is obviously a big concern with the temperature outside.
Do you think the student community could do more?
S: It can be difficult as a student because money can be tight. You might not feel able to hand over some change or buy someone a sandwich, but the students we work with are brilliant. Students can get a bad press but we are kind and those small gestures, just like that sandwich, can go a long way. It has benefits for you, too; it can help with your studies. It’s a balance that helps maintain your wellbeing, ability to concentrate and work, which I think is very important. I’ve certainly gained more these last couple of years by getting involved in my local community rather than being insular and remaining with other students and not diversifying.