When perceptions change about life on the streets

When perceptions change about life on the streets - 31/01/2021

Help us Help spoke to Sarah Fairest, the founder of Sheffield Street Kitchen about the work of the volunteers, and how their perceptions of the issues surrounding people who beg on the streets have changed over the past few years.

“I feel a bit embarrassed admitting it now, but I used to think that nothing was being done to help the homeless by the Council and services in the city. I mean how could they be doing anything when all we could see was people out on the streets. And everyone we spoke to who we saw on the streets pretty much said the same thing - there was nothing being done, nobody was helping them into accommodation, nobody was offering food, nothing. It sounds ridiculous to say that, but that truly was my perception when I set up Sheffield Street Kitchen” says Sarah Fairest.

Sarah and her group of 5 close friends set up the Street Kitchen in 2020 ,to address what they saw as a need for people on the streets in the city centre on Saturday evenings. The group provides food, hot drinks, clothing and basic supplies, on occasion to up to 50-60 people in an evening. The volunteers soon began to form bonds with some of the people they saw each week, and were focused on helping them to move away from a life on the streets. The majority of people they spoke to had issues with mental and physical health, problems with drugs or alcohol, often had insecure accommodation, and many begged in the city centre. 

Over time, Sarah and the volunteers thought that there had to be more they could do, and better ways of helping. Many of the people they spoke to on the streets seemed to be stuck, and while the Sheffield Street Kitchen group was set up to try and help people make progress, this didn’t seem to be happening for many people they spoke to. The team were frustrated as they wondered why more wasn’t being done - all they heard on the streets was that there was no support.

At around this time, Sarah was contacted by the Help us Help campaign to open up dialogue about how the groups could work together. Sarah was invited to join the city’s Street Outreach Forum over Zoom, and said that her first meeting, “really opened up my eyes to what was actually going on in the city, and just how much support was available. Ben’s Centre was there, the Archer Project, SWWOP, the Police, so many services who were all targeting and coordinating outreach to the same vulnerable people that we were supporting. I realised then that many of the stories we’d been told were not actually true, and while the people we had met obviously had huge need, perhaps their needs were not quite what they had told us!”

Since that first meeting, Sarah’s group has continued to be involved in the Street Outreach Forum, and are now an important part of a recognised network of services providing outreach support in the city centre. The group reports back to the Forum, passing on messages about people they have seen, helping to arrange appointments, passing on any areas of concern and referring people for accommodation under the Council’s new Winter Plan offering. Sarah and the team have received training on Covid-19 guidance, and were sent Covid care packs to distribute to people on the street during outreach, which is important in keeping the team safe when out supporting vulnerable people.

The Street Kitchen group are still fully committed to helping people they meet on the street. Sarah commented, “there are still some people who are much happier speaking to a volunteer than somebody from services, but it’s great now that we can pass any concerns on directly, and know that they will be picked up by a professional. Before we’d be at home at night after seeing someone in a state on the streets, and we’d be worrying about what was going to happen to them. Now, we still worry of course, but we know that services will step in and offer the support needed. Whether people take that support is still unknown, and believe me we have offered support hundreds of times to some people, but at least we can sleep a little easier”.

The Sheffield Street Kitchen team are all self funded, and reliant on donations raised through a Facebook group and an Amazon wishlist. Sarah keeps track of donations, and changes up the items on the wishlist to make sure they always have a small supply of items most in need; coffee, sugar, pot noodles, pasta sauces and biscuits are often needed. You can support the work of Sarah’s team by buying items on the wishlist, here.

Another challenge for the team is storage space - they would love to have a small lock up close to the city centre to mean they can store trolleys, food and equipment more easily, especially looking to the future when hopefully they will be able to set up as a street kitchen again. If you are able to offer any storage space to the Sheffield Street Kitchen, please contact the team via their Facebook page.

Sarah’s final comment was, “we’ve seen so many people make progress in the time we’ve known them. A few in particular that spring to mind. To be a small part of helping someone to turn their lives around is really rewarding. It feels strange to say that doing this work helps me too, but it does. It helps me manage my mental health and gives me a sense of purpose. Every Saturday, whatever the weather, I know I’ve got to get out there as there are people replying on us - they are great guys, but just got lost along the way, that’s all.”


Alison Wise for Help us Help

January 2021