MY WELLSPRING BLOG
As part of the 'My Wildest Dreams' project, I decided the best way to get to meet homeless people was to approach local homeless charities. On my doorstep in Stockport is an amazing charity, The Wellspring.
The Wellspring has been supporting homeless people and people at risk of homelessness for the past 24 years. If you are interested in learning more about the great work they do at the Wellspring, just visit their website at:
I set up a meeting with project manager Jonathan Billings and met him at the Wellspring to discuss my project plans. I was with him for over an hour and in that time I learnt a lot about homelessness. It transformed my ideas about the subject, and it inspired me. It also underlined for me the need for a project like this to raise awareness about homelessness in our society today.
Jonathan was extremely generous with his time, it was obvious his passion for his work was strong and the commitment of the small workforce shone through. There is an incredible vibe at the Wellspring which I can only describe as 'calm caring'.
We talked about what would be a good first step for me and Jonathan said "come and volunteer" so I did...
The way it works is that every day people can visit the Wellspring and they will get a free meal, no questions asked. There is a rota for volunteers and they like to have five on a shift for the kitchen, this includes a team leader who is generally the most experienced. The first day I arrived I was a little nervous, I wasn't quite sure what would be expected of me, but the friendly volunteers soon put my mind at rest. I had a tour of the building including the cellar where all the food supplies are stored. I was struck by the size of the operation (They cater for up to 70 people each mealtime) and the generosity of local companies and individuals.
I started work preparing sandwiches at 9.45, we were aiming to be ready to serve at 11.30 although I was told the queue would start to form soon after 11. On the menu that day was a nice soup, various (and many!) sandwiches, salad, and for desert, rice pudding and other sweets, plus tea, coffee or juice, as much as you like.
There was a glut of bread and rolls as the freezer containing them had broken down so the bread needed to be used. There had also just been a delivery from a local bakers. On top of the basic there were packets of crisps, fruit and penguin biscuits for everyone. I made about 40 rounds of tuna and sweetcorn sandwiches, there was the same again of grated cheese, ham, corned beef plus various packaged pre prepared sandwiches that come from local businesses.
On my first day we were overstaffed as there were 2 volunteers extra so all the prep went very smoothly. By 11.15 we were ready. There are no shutters to put up like on Dinner Ladies, you just start serving. An orderly queue had formed, people getting a tray from the pile. The soup was very popular, I was on sandwich duty, people are allowed 3 sandwiches if they don't have a hot meal, two if they do, and only one if it's one of the pre-packed (they go very quickly, hence the queue!) I was struck by the atmosphere generated within that building; with a lot of love and laughs over the next two hours. I got to meet and serve around 60 people, mostly regulars apparently, the regular volunteers knew everyone by name, and taught me about any quirks or things to look out for. There was quite a variety of people in the queue; some you would say were clearly dealing with challenges in their lives, perhaps homeless, some looked more comfortable, better dressed, if you met them in different circumstances I doubt you would guess that they were in any difficulty. One gentleman was bruised all over his face, another was bleeding from a cut above his eye, a third had a bump the size of an egg on his forehead. Nobody spoke about what had caused these injuries, I guess I jumped to conclusions and my thoughts turned to a violent existance on the streets but of course I know not to overdramatise, I will let them tell me their stories when they are ready, until then I can only observe without prejudice. Chat was friendly and polite, people were very grateful for the support they were receiving. Some people obviously spoke little English, one person seemed to be quite hyper, another introspective. There was talk of someone who had just been sent to prison. I knew that this was a world away from the comfortable middle-class home-life I enjoy. These are people existing 'on the edge' in many ways, on the outer edge of society, on the edge of a metaphorical cliff in terms of emotional stability and survival. But, as ever with my work, I was struck by the commonalities; these people are exactly the same as me or you, just having to deal with different stuff, they have perhaps not had the breaks I had, they have perhaps (some might say) made bad choices, some might say they have not had choices. Whatever the political arguments, at a human level, this could be me. Someone at the Wellspring said that we are all just a few events away from homelessness and I can see that that is true. I noted the 'ordinariness' of the people I met, I don't know why that still surprises me after all my years doing work like this.
I only had the briefest of chats with people as I served them. I wasn't going to rush into intensive interviews; I need to take this slowly and build trust and familiarity. A few weeks down the line maybe I'll be able to begin to ask questions...
We served till 1pm and then any left overs were served as seconds. All the food was eaten, there was nothing left, even the bread mountain had gone by the end! It seemed likely that some of the visitors would not eat again that day, this was their only source of nutrition. I realised what a vital service the Wellspring provides, along with the food there is medical care, a dentist visits, a hairdresser, there is help with getting benefits or help with housing issues, there is help getting off addictions, there is the social aspect of the centre that feels like a big family. It's about dignity as much as anything, and trying to bring order to what are probably chaotic lives.
I would recommend anyone go and volunteer at a place like this. It is not easy but I think if everyone did this once in a while it might help to break down barriers between the 'haves' and the 'have nots', which can only be a good thing.