Up to twenty-five people rely upon Shaftesbury’s Open House for emergency aid, food parcels or benefits advice each Tuesday. Alfred visited and heard how the service makes a difference and why organisers would like additional funding.
Open House launched four years ago as a Churches Together initiative. Administrator Helen Beecham says its founders wanted to address issues surrounding poverty and homelessness here in Shaftesbury.
“People were struggling with not having enough to eat. If anyone needed benefits or housing support they had to travel to Salisbury, Yeovil or a long way. Public transport is not easy, so we wanted somewhere local in Shaftesbury where people could come and get the help and advice they needed,” Helen said.
If you walk around Shaftesbury Town Centre on a weekday you might see a handful of people who appear to be homeless. Helen says not everybody in that situation is readily visible and homelessness is a greater issue in our town than people might expect.
“I would say that it is significant, even though you might not necessarily see it on the streets. We have people coming in on a Tuesday to our drop-in who are homeless. That would include people sofa surfing and moving between friends’ houses or living in a caravan. We have supported people living in tents on Castle Hill,” she said.
From Helen’s experience, a lack of available and affordable housing in Shaftesbury contributes to the problem. “There are long waiting lists to go on the housing register and once you are on it, it can sometimes take years. It is especially difficult if you are a single man, which puts you low down on the list.”
Helen says that one of Open House’s key roles is supporting people while they are waiting for available accommodation. “We can help with emergency food aid if they find themselves in a situation where they are not able to eat, and they haven’t got enough food. We can advise on what sorts of benefits it would be appropriate for them to apply for. Some clients may not realise they can claim certain benefits. We have trained benefits and housing advisers who can help somebody get on the ladder and get a step up,” said Helen.
Benefit applicants usually need an address and while some people can use friends or relatives’ places as a point of contact, that’s not available or appropriate for everybody. “It can be a bit of a vicious circle,” said Helen.
Some of the benefits forms are complex and can prove intimidating to applicants, particularly if they are struggling with other issues. “We find that a lot of clients are overwhelmed by looking at the form and everything they need to fill out.”
Open House also distributes food parcels, designed to last three days. “We are given a supply from the Gillingham Food Bank which we can then pass on to the clients coming in here,” said Helen. She added that the products generally have a long shelf life. “It’s tins of pasta, UHT milk, staple foods that can last.”
Open House has an arrangement with Shaftesbury’s Tesco whereby volunteers can pick up surplus bread, vegetables and packet food on a Monday evening. “It supplements the food parcels that we can give out,” she said. Donations are also received from local organisations including some churches. Recently, Shaftesbury Primary School pupils donated food from their harvest festival collection.
Helen says that no one particular time of year could be described as their busiest. “There are people in need all year round,” she said. “But people can find themselves in real difficulty after Christmas because they have felt pressurised to spend more or celebrate the holiday in a certain way.”
The Open House team can help with basic budgeting too, but Helen says that they would refer clients to the Citizens Advice Bureau or other organisations if their visitors had major debt issues. Whilst Open House can’t give out money, they can take care of everyday costs for people in need, such as providing heat or light.
“We can top up the electricity. We have also got an arrangement with the Blackmore Vale Garage where we can give somebody a voucher for a gas bottle. Some of our clients who live in caravans rely on gas for heating and cooking, and we can help.”
Some homelessness charities recommend giving money to aid organisations rather than handing over coins or notes directly on the street. Helen agrees. “Even though giving cash is a quick fix and it might help somebody at that moment, we would want to assist people to change their lifestyle through budgeting or through knowing what benefits they can claim for housing issues,” said Helen. “We can help people get on their feet. I think that’s far more beneficial than a quick fix of cash.”
Some of the people Open House supports do have jobs but their contracts and employment terms have pushed them into poverty. “Even somebody who is in work and has a regular wage can find themselves in a difficult position. There are so many zero-hours contracts now you only need to be ill for a couple of weeks and you are in dire straits if you haven’t got savings,” she explained.
There might be people reading or hearing this article who are desperately in need but, because they feel compelled to ‘keep up appearances’, would never consider asking Open House for help. Helen understands this. “I would encourage anybody in need of any type of support, small or large, to pop in and see us. This is what we’re here for. There is no judgement whatsoever. We recognise that anybody can find themselves in a difficult situation however that has happened,” she said.
Although Open House is a partnership between the churches in our town, Helen says that non-Christians or atheists will not be treated differently. “We want to be here for everybody and although we are an organisation with volunteers from the churches, our heart is to support the community. We treat everybody the same, whether they have a faith or no faith at all.”
Like all voluntary initiatives, funding is vital, and Helen says Open House is grateful to its donors in Shaftesbury. “We have several regular givers who give by direct debit every month. We also apply for grants from local trusts. We’re hoping to get quite a lot of support from the Town Council and the new Mayor has shown interest in the project.”
“Going forward, we need at least £2,000 a month to keep our van going for the Store House project,” explained Helen, as she spoke about Open House’s provision of basic furnishings or white goods to people in need. Money is also used to pay the part-time administrator and to buy extra supplies for clients. “To top up the emergency aid cupboard. We can give people basic toiletries and household cleaning products as well.”
If more cash was available, Helen knows how the service could expand. “We’d like to help more with benefits appeals. Often people find it helpful to have somebody to go to court with them as an advocate. That would need more volunteers getting trained up and having the time to be able to do it. It would ultimately be a paid role.”
Sometimes, Open House can simply improve a local person’s sense of wellbeing. “We have one gentleman who wants to sit and doesn’t need to have a conversation. He just wants to be here, as he lives on his own. Sometimes we have people who come in for a coffee and a chat, a bit of friendship and to meet people,” said Helen.
Open House is available at Father’s House on Christy’s Lane each Tuesday, from 10am until 2pm. The last session before Christmas will be on 17th December.
As Helen reflects on 2019, she says the service has helped many people, which sometimes means they don’t see those clients further. “We’ve had some really amazing success stories, particularly with housing applications,” she said. “It means they have gone into housing, perhaps moved away from the area and we don’t see them. It is so positive when we’ve had that kind of outcome for somebody. We have helped them apply for the benefits that they need so they can support themselves and they can budget and do what they need to do. They don’t need us anymore, which is ultimately what we want.”