This time last year, a new poem was published expressing a sentiment which seemed apt for the festive season. As Christmas comes around again it is brought to mind whilst we think about those who bed down on our streets and in our parks and open spaces at this inclement time of year. Here it is:
And comes the time for Christmas cheer again,
throughout the modern world we spend and spend.
Let’s not forget the message, heed the pain,
of others whom on us for life depend.
The sick and starving children marred by war,
or pestilence or xenophobic kings.
It goes against all decent moral law,
to thus ignore the sound as pity sings.
So as we sit and eat our festive meal,
remember well how lucky we all are.
We do not have to weasel, lie or steal,
unlike the victims living under par.
A hope it is that waste we do accrue,
will see its way to those for whom it’s due.
This heartfelt aspiration in the form of a sonnet in iambic pentameters was written by a recovering alcoholic who almost lost his home. For 30 years Alistair Muir was a heavy drinker and drug taker. In the lowest of his lows, he consumed more than 300 units of alcohol per week and faced life on the streets. He turned to writing as a form of therapy.
We are privileged to live in one of the most affluent places in the land, and the happiest place to live in London, according to Rightmove, a property website. Alistair Muir is not from these parts. Whether there is anyone quite like him in Richmond we do not know. For all our town’s prosperity and happiness, however, there are those in our midst who need help. For proof, just glance at shop doorways where homeless men and women huddle for warmth.
Sleeping rough is hazardous and can be fatal: the average life expectancy of a rough sleeper is reckoned to be 47. Police note linkage between the incidence of rough sleeping and serious use of hard drugs. This is sometimes associated with aggressive begging.
Several voluntary organisations and charities in Richmond provide help for those in crisis. Some of the most active are listed below.
SPEAR (Single Person’s Emergency Accommodation in Richmond) works to move people from homelessness to independence.
SPEAR began 30 years ago, offering a night shelter and, later, move-on accommodation and a permanent short-stay hostel. Its emergency shelter is at Penny Wade House, 22-24 Kew Road, on Richmond Circus just past the Church of St John the Divine. The phone number is 020 8332 7382. SPEAR operates a Rough Sleeper Helpline on 020 8404 1481 and at email@example.com.
SPEAR’s guide to how you can help if you see someone sleeping rough is at https://www.spearlondon.org/what-you-should-do-if-you-see-a-rough-sleeper/. You can notify the location of a rough sleeper online at https://www.spearlondon.org/rough-sleeper-outreach/#report so that SPEAR’s outreach team can try to help.
Penny Wade, for whom the Richmond hostel is named, was a social activist. Before she opened the first SPEAR shelter in 1986 she had helped to set up the Vineyard Project, a drop-in centre that provided a welcoming environment for all comers – lonely or vulnerable people, some with mental health problems, on probation, homeless or otherwise on the margins of society.
It was located in the crypt of the Vineyard Congregational Church, which once hosted a youth club where Tony Blair famously played as a gap year guitarist in 1972 before going up to Oxford.
Penny devoted 21 years to the Vineyard Project and together with a team of volunteers helped thousands of local people in distress. She was also a trustee of the Richmond Parish Lands Charity, to which the Richmond Society nominates a Trustee. Penny died 10 years ago, aged 78.
Vineyard Community Centre, the Vineyard Project’s successor, describes itself as a place of refuge and comfort for people who are in crisis.
Bob Kimmerling, who trained as an architect and became head of the Vineyard Centre’s Trustees, calls it a sort of haven in the middle of Richmond where “we open our hearts”.
The morning drop-in aims to meet the needs of those who are in crisis or homeless, to provide a welcome and connection to community. It looks after up to 40 visitors each morning – people who drop in for breakfast, a shower, chat, use of a computer – about 7,500 visits a year. Some drop in just for a few days and others remain almost permanently. Visitors stay for around three months on average before finding a way forward.
Throughout the year, food is donated by local supermarkets, restaurants and cafés.
“There will be early Christmas celebrations at the Vineyard attended by about 100 people, with turkey and all the trimmings, crackers and carols,” Bob Kimmerling says.
He is minister of what is now called Vineyard Life Church, a trustee of Richmond Street Pastors run by local churches, and founder of the Richmond FoodBank, which has been providing three days’ worth of nutritionally balanced “emergency food” for local people in crisis twice a week since 2012. Details at http://www.richmond.foodbank.org.uk or call 020 8940 0274.
Glass Door Homeless Charity is London’s largest open-access network of emergency winter shelters and support services for those affected by homelessness. It partners with an inter-denominational network of churches across West and South West London to provide shelter and support that is open to all, space permitting, for 22 weeks from November to April.
A circuit of Glass Door shelters opened in seven Richmond-upon-Thames churches for the first time last January. In Richmond town and on the Hill, they are currently run from the churches of St John the Divine, St Elizabeth of Portugal, St Matthias, and the Vineyard Life Church, which take it in turn to offer shelter for one night. The Church of St Mary Magdalene, in the heart of the town, is unable to provide accommodation because it lacks a kitchen in which to cook food. Members of its congregation do volunteer at other churches, however.
Glass Door’s list of the top ways to bring shelter and hope this Christmas is at https://www.glassdoor.org.uk/top-ways-to-give-this-christmas. You can donate to its Christmas appeal here: https://www.glassdoor.org.uk/donate/christmas-appeal/23/credit-card.
Congregations at St John the Divine, St Mary Magdalene and St Matthias had been looking to find a way to “help those who are sleeping rough in our town, the ones we see on our way to church and those who come to us for some support,” said the Rev Wilma Roest, Rector of the Richmond Team Ministry that runs the three Anglican churches. “This project offers a practical, sensible and realistic way of bringing some comfort during these cold months.”
Richmond upon Thames Council offers help to those who are homeless or at risk of becoming so. Details can be found at https://www.richmond.gov.uk/if_you_are_homeless