A Birmingham charity for the homeless could be a torch-bearer for David Cameron’s drive for a Big Society, but SIFA Fireside is facing job cuts for the second time in a year. Richard McComb reports
Barry used to be master baker and Bill worked in the NHS for 25 years.
They are joined for lunch by Ireneusz, a 25-year-old Pole, who is wearing a thin coat bearing the logo “No Fear.” He has a bewildered demeanour but is unflinchingly courteous.
Out of the trio, Bill is the lucky one, although everything is relative, as soon becomes apparent. The 51-year-old bedded down in a hostel last night; Barry and Ireneusz spent the night on the streets in sub-zero temperatures.
“I had a sleeping bag, but I lost it,” says Barry when I ask him how he coped with the cold. “If someone sees something they need, they take it. I’ll sleep on the floor tonight.”
The three men join more than 70 others for their main, sometimes only, meal of the day at SIFA Fireside. Today’s menu consists of cheese and ham rolls and a robust vegetable soup. The latter has been made from school children’s donations at harvest festivals.
Sheltering from the bitter cold and the snow flurries, the first diners congregate in the centre’s covered doorway from 11.30am. By midday, when the doors are opened, the numbers have swelled. There are taps on the glass door. I am told to step to the side so I don’t get trampled in the rush for the canteen but the procession is strangely ordered.
The men, for they are predominantly men, sign in at a desk, like restaurant customers checking off reservations. Most of them are regulars. A worker fills in their names on a sheet. There is a sign at the check-in saying: “Please hand in ALL alcohol at the desk.”
A lone woman in a bright Tibetan-style hat asks if she can leave her shopping trolley behind the desk. “It’s got vodka in it,” she says in a rich southern Irish accent, giving a clue to one of the reasons why “service users” find themselves at SIFA Fireside.
The charity in Lower Essex Street, a two-minute stroll from the Hippodrome theatre, is a lifeline for the city’s homeless population. According to the official statistics, there are only nine rough sleepers in Birmingham. The figure raises a wry smile and a shaking of the head among the dislocated and chaotic characters I meet at the centre.
“I was at the soup kitchen in Carrs Lane last night,” says one regular as he thaws out. “There were 120 people there.”
SIFA Fireside was formed by the merger of two charities, Supporting Independence From Alcohol and the Fireside, three years ago.
The groups’ linked interests in tackling homelessness and the related problems of alcohol abuse, drug addiction and mental health, meant a tie up made sense.
There is a second base in Pershore Street, where activities such as quizzes are held, but it is at Lower Essex Street where breakfast and lunch is provided daily, Monday to Friday.
The demand for the service has never been greater but the future of the organisation arguably has never been more perilous.
SIFA Fireside had to make five redundancies in June as it grappled with funding cuts, battered by a recession that has swept up everyone. Its main financial backer is Birmingham City Council, which provides about £350,000 of the £1 million budget.
Managers have been told to expect further cuts, of between 15-30 per cent, to be announced before Christmas. The cloth has already been cut; it’s difficult to see what else can be trimmed.
Cath Gilliver, SIFA Fireside’s chief executive, maintains a diplomatic stance as we talk in her snug office. The desk is piled high with files; there are policy memoranda pinned to the wall.
“We are expecting to hear in the next two weeks,” says Cath. “The financial climate has affected fundraising and donations. It is difficult to get funding from charitable trusts because everyone is running to them and they have suffered because of the fall in interest rates.”
Tough decisions will have to be made. Do you stop feeding the homeless or cut back alcohol support services, resettlement advice and counselling? Or do you lay off the staff who provide the expertise and a thin shred of hope for those troubled individuals whose lives have spiralled out of control?
Cath says she cannot rule out additional job losses among her 35 employees. She says: “Our biggest expense and our biggest resource is staff. We have tried to cut our costs but this could affect our staff potentially and staff are already over-stretched because of the increased demand for services.”
The irony of the situation, with the coalition Government seeking to expand, not contract the work of social care charities like SIFA Fireside, is lost on no one.
Quite how this transference of service delivery can be switched from the public to the cash-strapped voluntary sector – SIFA Fireside ran on a deficit last year – remains a puzzle for many. Professionalism and goodwill only goes so far in the Big Society.
In an office next-door, Mary Mantom is wearing a black and white pinny after helping out at breakfast. Mary, a service delivery co-ordinator, is in charge of catering and is taking a call from a supplier specialising in clearance produce from supermarkets. The company distributes fresh goods and store cupboard staples that are nearing the end of their shelf life.
“Yes, please. How much have you got? Great,” says Mary down the phone. “I’ll take a tray of marge... A couple of trays of pear juice. Oh, no, not grapefruit. They don’t like grapefruit ...
“Where do you get the bread from? I had some left-over toast the other morning and it was really nice. I wondered where it came from, so I can get some myself ... Oh, Greggs. I’ll have to try some.”
The kitchen always get lots of sausages and a delivery of Sainsbury’s premium bangers arrives later that day. The main staples are bread, cheese, pasta, sauces, sliced meats, milk.
“Sometimes we get treats if the supermarkets have overstocked. We had chocolate chip brioche last week. Gosh, we were popular that week,” says Mary.
SIFA Fireside gets three deliveries a week from the supplier, accounting for half the food stuffs and drinks (tea, coffee, juices) it needs. The service costs about £2,000 a year. The rest of the produce is sourced through a main industry supplier.
It comes as a shock then to learn SIFA Fireside doesn’t have a budget for food. Although it is probably best known for providing potentially lifesaving meals – and during the cold snap that isn’t an empty statement – the charity isn’t contracted to do so and has to find the cash from donations or by juggling budgets.
Mary, who has a degree in hotel and restaurant management, traded a life working on cruise ships in the Caribbean for her post at SIFA Fireside. She had become disillusioned with the hospitality business but catering for the homeless has re-ignited her enthusiasm.
Mary says: “This job is perfect. I am doing what I do best for a very different type of customer. I like these customers a lot better. I can tell them to be quiet if they complain. It is a cliche, but there is reward.”
Mary supervises a team of half a dozen unpaid helpers at lunch. Winter is always the busiest time. “The numbers keep creeping up,” says Mary. In September, there were 70 or 80 for lunch. Now it usually 90. The reason it’s “only” 70 today is due to the extreme cold.
“People hunker down. They don’t want to move,” explains Carole Fox, SIFA Fireside’s operations manager.
Carole assumes crowd-control duties when the doors open for lunch service. At breakfast, a rough sleeper turned up looking very poorly.
Carole says: “He has been sleeping in a garage of a derelict house and he was frozen to the core. We sent someone up to the market to buy him gloves because we were so worried about him. We need to get him in a hostel but he has probably been kicked out. We are phoning around to see if someone will give him another go.”
Carole has previously run hostels and says workers now see much younger men with severe drink problems. Although drink, drugs, blighted childhoods, criminal offending and mental health are recurrent themes, there are no easy explanations for homelessness.
Carole relates the story of one visitor to the centre: “He had an IT business. He had the Porsche, the house, two kids. He had a lot of family support as well, but he was found in a crack den in Wolverhampton.”
Some of the men live so close to the edge they don’t come back. SIFA Fireside has just started a book of remembrance to record the names of 24 men who have died this year. Most of them were in their 30s.
“A lot of the deaths were alcohol or drug-related,” says Carole. “One person burnt to death in Highgate. Two people died in a squat. They were in their 30s. Polish lads. Alcohol was involved.”
One of only two women to pop in for lunch today is 34-year-old Tina. She is thrilled with the woolly hat she’s just bought at the German market in the city centre.
Tina has been living in a hostel since the end of October but before that she was sleeping on the streets. She says her three children have been taken into care and she is fleeing a violent partner.
“He kept hitting me and I used to go back to him,” says Tina. “It got the stage where either I was going to be killed or he was. I would fantasise about killing him while he slept, hitting him on the head with a pan.”
Tina has been attacked while sleeping rough in Birmingham, but she thinks her life has taken a turn for the better with the hostel placement.
Bill, who used to work as a theatre technician at the Royal Hospital, Wolverhampton, has been using SIFA Fireside on and off since 1999.
Sipping his soup, he explains how he “lost everything” after his parents died. “The council wouldn’t let me keep the house because I was not on the rent book. I started sleeping rough,” says Bill, who writes poetry.
Now he’s got a place in a city hostel. Of his £90 fortnightly benefits, £77.74 goes to the landlord. That leaves him with a little over a tenner for food every two weeks.
I ask Bill if he can rationalise what has happened to him: “Hmm ... Bad things happen to good people.”
Then Bill puts on his hat, telling me: “If you don’t have a hat on in this weather, you die.”
Barry, the ex-baker, says his life fell apart following the breakdown of a relationship in Scotland. He says: “I had a house and I was doing well. We split up and I came to Birmingham. I didn’t have anywhere to live. I’m a stubborn git. I have brothers here but I don’t want to be a burden on them.”
Barry slept under a bridge last night. He says he won’t eat tonight. He doesn’t like going to the mobile soup kitchens. “There’s violence,” he says.
I ask Barry what he will do for food and he tells me with an emotionless expression: “If the worst comes to the worst, I will rob. I know it’s bad. But I heard some religious person, a priest or a bishop, say, ‘If you are hungry, go and grab it.’”
It is a bleak conclusion to our conversation. As he walks off, back out on to the streets, Barry adds: “If my truth can make a difference to the world, it will make me happy.”
* SIFA Fireside urgently needs donations of warm clothing. If you can help, please ring 0121 666 7023 or visit www.sifafireside.co.uk
Restaurant customers can support SIFA Fireside and St Basils, which tackles youth homelessness, by donating £1 to the StreetSmart campaign. The campaign is supported by The Birmingham Post. For a full list of participating restaurants, go to www.streetsmart.org.uk