With rough sleeping on the rise, this is a place of shelter for the most vulnerable in Wakefield
When winter hits and the temperature plummets all most of us have to worry about is if we’ll need to turn the heating up or de-ice the car.
But it means something different to Eleanor Brennan and her team at Wakefield Baptist Church – because when the mercury drops to zero the doors open to the city’s night shelter for rough sleepers.
Shelter co-ordinator Eleanor said: “It has a whole different meaning for people who have four walls. It’s different for me as well although I don’t have the same anxiety about the cold as someone who is homeless or at risk of being homeless.
“People could freeze to death overnight. It sounds dramatic but that is the absolute reality.”
When the shelter – which is marking its 10th anniversary – opens she organises her team of volunteers and lets agencies like the police and council know the situation.
The people come from a range of backgrounds, some with drug or alcohol problems, some who struggled finding work after arriving from another country, some who have fled abuse, some who might be victims of modern slavery.
There’s time for people to have a meal, shower and a chat before lights-out at 11pm.
It is open for people to stay overnight until the temperature rises above freezing.
When it drops back to zero, the team do it all over again.
The shelter – based out of the church at the corner of Belle Isle Lane and Barnsley Road – can offer refuge for up to 15 people but it’s usually “between seven and nine”.
Last winter was the first time it went over capacity and people had to be sent to shelters elsewhere.
Eleanor said: “It’s difficult to know why. It could just have been a particularly cold night.
“The reality is there are a lot of people who are homeless and don’t come to the shelter. There are a few we’ve known who’ve been encouraged to come but still don’t want to.
“So it might be it was a particularly cold night and folk who would otherwise risk it out in the cold weather have come.”
Volunteers have found it’s a problem that’s not going away and might even be getting worse. Eleanor said: “It seems the level of homeless has not gone down but I’m not looking at the stats so I don’t know for definite.
“But we’re 10 years down the line and we’re at full capacity, so I take from that homelessness has not reduced and maybe it has increased.”
And it can be tough work. Sometimes people are disruptive or intoxicated and Eleanor has to weigh up if they pose a threat to themselves or others.
She said: “It’s not uncommon that we ring 101 or 999 and get help from those professionals.
“We just want to make sure that they are OK. We don’t want to take any risks and assume it’s going to be OK and then it’s not.
“With people who are dependent drinkers it can be a risk that they reach the morning and then have a fit, it’s just part of the struggle they have in how their bodies respond to the alcohol, or lack of it, by the morning.”
The first night the shelter was open last winter was Christmas Eve. Eleanor said it was a “quiet one”.
“Generally it was a good atmosphere because it’s Christmas Eve,” she said.
“Often they enjoy Christmas, people who’ve not experienced good Christmases or had very good lives. But I think they feel welcome here.
“They get an excellent welcome from our volunteers, whether it’s Christmas or not.”
Are some of those we help victims of modern slavery?
Volunteers who serve free meals to homeless people in Wakefield believe some of those they help may be victims of modern slavery.
The claims come after a Wakefield Council report found three workers had been found living in “rented squalor” and were bussed out to work in a car wash for a pittance.
Wakefield MP Mary Creagh warned slavery was “hiding in plain sight” on the streets of our city.
At Wakefield Baptist Church’s drop-in sessions volunteer David Taylor, a former prosecutor at Wakefield Magistrates’ Court said he believed some of the people they have helped were in similar circumstances.
He said: “We have had – though I can’t prove it – people who come here who have been controlled by a gangmaster.
“A few weeks ago we had a couple who were Eastern European come and looked through our lists and I suspect they were looking for somebody.”
He said it was “usually Eastern European people or asylum seekers” rather than British people who fell victim to gangmasters.
He said: “You suspect it but it’s damned near impossible to prove, because first of all there’s a language barrier and, secondly, most of them aren’t willing to open up to you.”
Volunteer Kathleen Pacey added: “I’ve known some who have come through here living flats and working for their landlord. They are paid the absolute minimum, about a tenner a week.”
Turning point came when man chose prison over life on the street
Kathleen Pacey started helping homeless people around 35 years ago when she worked in Wakefield city centre and came across a man living in a disused toilet on Kirkgate.
Though she describes him as a “belligerent alcoholic” she took him a cup of coffee every morning and made sure he was set up for the day.
The real turning point for Kathleen came when the man found himself in court after urinating in public and said he wanted to be sent down.
When he was only given three days he was furious and wanted 14.
Kathleen said: “It showed me that the whole system was wrong for disadvantaged people.
“Life can be really tough. I thought if I can help someone a little bit it would lift things a bit.
“I think it’s awful that people don’t have other people that love them.”
She has been serving food at Wakefield Baptist Church’s drop-in sessions for six years.
The church serves free meals between 1pm and 3pm on Mondays and Thursday and helps people with whatever issues they might be having, from clothes to housing benefit forms.
Coordinator Eleanor Brennan said the sessions are a “friendly space” for anyone but most of the people involved are “homeless, on benefits and don’t have a lot of money, or perhaps not in work”.
Kathleen said the sessions offer respite from tough aspects of life on the streets.
She said: “Loneliness plays a big part. And out there there’s a lot of bullying on the streets.
“We’ve lost some people – they’ve died. People have been kicked, abused urinated on.”
She said homelessness seemed relatively rare when she started and the problem had grown massively since she started her volunteering work.
“Thirty-five years ago it wasn’t recognised, there was the odd one or two, lone wanderers or New Age Travellers, but now it is ridiculous,” she said.
The most recent figures for Wakefield counted 9 rough sleepers.
But housing charity Shelter explains homelessness comes in several forms, including rough sleeping, couch surfing, or otherwise not having a permanent home.