It’s easier than ever to slip into homelessness yet cripplingly tough to get off the streets once you’re there. We caught up with Tara Attfield-Tomes, co-founder of Let’s Feed Brum, a charity striving to forge positive outcomes for rough sleepers across the city
It’s Christmas and while we’re not trying to burst your festive bubble, it’s not Hallmark schmaltz for everyone. While numbers of homeless people on the streets of Brum have fallen since Covid, there’s work to do. Achieving a positive outcome involves pulling together homeless charities, enforcement and council services ensuring they work efficiently in synch. One charity in the city, Let’s Feed Brum recognises this need for collaboration as well as the power of befriending homeless people and building trust.
Let’s Feed Brum co-founder Tara Attfield-Tomes says the charity was born out of a desire to genuinely help – and not about being ‘do-gooders’. The volunteer-led charity works to befriend the homeless community as well as providing nourishment while working with other organisations in the city to find a solution and get a roof over the heads of rough sleepers.
Initially, there was a team of 10 to 12 volunteers. Tara used to bundle foldable tables in the back of her car, while Itihaas whose owner Raj Rana is one of LFB’s founders, provided the food. Now there are more than 100 volunteers and increasing support from the city’s restaurants – Dishoom, Yorks, Franco Manca and Syriana for example.
There are dedicated, trained team leaders and volunteers out every night as well as twice weekly breakfasts at the Cathedral. There are also significant walkabout teams in rough sleeping hot spots, regular events at refuges and an LFB Friendship helpline. The breakfast events are often sponsored by local businesses who provide funds enabling the charity to buy food and drink while clothing and key supplies are handed out through partnerships with businesses such as Re:Sole and Socks & Crocs as well as public donations.
Tara explains that the misconception that the system is broken is not strictly true. When LFB began, there were a lot of organisations working to tackle rough sleeping but they weren’t necessarily joined up, so one organisation would do their bit then pass it on to the next. This has changed over time through increased collaboration and communication. LFB’s approach was to say to other services and authorities: ‘Use us. How can we help?’
Volunteers are trained not to promise to fix things but to reassure people they’ll look into it. It’s crucial not to let people down at this point – it’s likely they’ve been let down badly before. The mistrust of authority sometimes goes right back to school, so building trust is the number one priority. Tara says: “It’s a complex situation and can take a year to get the real story sometimes. We aim to build up trust – the biggest barrier to progress. Once we’re on the street we can engage with people, start a conversation and provide genuine support.”
MIX OF PEOPLE
She adds: “Homeless people are just people – some are horrible, some are amazing and some are completely ‘normal’. If you lose your job and you don’t have a support network around you, it would be easy to slip into homelessness. If you’ve been through the care system, if your parents are both dead and you’re an only child, if you’ve mental health issues and don’t have a network of friends, if you’re living on the edge of poverty with no support network and something goes wrong, what do you do?”
Covid changed the situation and the operation stopped temporarily due to lockdown. The Government’s Everyone In scheme meant that those on the city’s streets was offered a place in a hotel. Some of those people are now in accommodation and have jobs and but some chose not to go into the hotel.
While homeless figures are still lower than pre-Covid, they are set to rise. Tara says: “We’re starting to see people ending up on the streets because they can’t pay their bills. Foodbank access is on the up and let’s not forget that Covid was a wild time and mental health is on the decline.” There’s a misconception that LFB and charities like them are enabling homelessness, but that’s not so. Working with other services and charities is powerful and effective. For instance, if there’s someone new to the streets, there’s a 48-hour window to try and get them back home. Beyond then it’s unlikely you’ll get people to reverse. Engaging early and alerting and working with other services is crucial which is only possible through strong networks and understanding.
The charity which received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service last year – the highest award given to local voluntary groups – is funded through donations and grants and Brum’s business community has been a generous contributor, but it wasn’t always the case. During the first three years there were many doors slammed in faces, but Tara, along with her co-founders weren’t deterred.
They used their networks and personal contacts to drum up support in the city. As well as the business community, Tara is amazed by the kindness and generosity of people, particularly people who don’t have much themselves. LFB is just one of a handful of charities doing wonderful things to tackle homelessness across the city and while we know times are hard, if you’re able to help by donating to or volunteering with any of the homeless charities in the city, it would be hugely appreciated and make a difference.