Out on the streets with Leeds Homeless Support Group

Homeless Leeds Support Group volunteers man its weekly street kitchen in Leeds city centre. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
Homeless Leeds Support Group volunteers man its weekly street kitchen in Leeds city centre. Pictures by Tony Johnson.
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Brian was hovering near a strip of scrubland as we walked over with a bag containing a hot meal, bottled water, a sandwich and some snacks.

For the past few weeks he had been sleeping among bushes on the outskirts of Leeds city centre, hiding his few belongings in the nook of a tree until nightfall.

Homeless Leeds Support Group founders Marie Butler and David Hedley

Homeless Leeds Support Group founders Marie Butler and David Hedley

But following the theft of his sleeping bag and camp mat a few days earlier, he had been sleeping with only a pillow and his clothes for warmth.

Homeless Leeds Support Group volunteer Simon Rickles made the introductions and we settled down for a chat on metal panel laying nearby.

Now middle-aged, Brian has been homeless on and off since he was 12 years old.

He had recently been in hospital for an operation on his hand, but was now back sleeping rough with his hand in a bandage.

I know we were the last people to give him a hot meal. I could cry thinking about it.

Marie Butler, co-founder of Homeless Leeds Support Group

“I’ve stayed in flats and houses for a while,” he said. “The reason it probably didn’t last was because of mental health problems.

“I think there’s a lot wrong with mental health provision. It’s far too reliant on drugs. They don’t address the social things, the emotional things.”

Brian suffers from anxiety and a sleep disorder, which also affects his physical wellbeing.

He has completed some studies with Leeds University and the Open University in the past, but often finds himself feeling self-conscious about his ability to interact with others.

The group provides hot meals and food parcels to take away.

The group provides hot meals and food parcels to take away.

“I’m extremely socially isolated,” he said. “There’s one guy in a restaurant that I chat to. I just have a cup of tea and chat.”

Sometimes he goes to one of the local pubs to watch performers at the open mic night, relishing the way they support each other.

It is also an opportunity to catch a news bulletin on TV, which offers him a “window on the world”.

The recent theft of his belongings had clearly shaken him though, and later Simon told me that it was not unheard of for the tents used by the homeless to be set alight.

Dozens of people come to the street kitchen at Mill Hill Chapel every Wednesday evening.

Dozens of people come to the street kitchen at Mill Hill Chapel every Wednesday evening.

Brian said: “I think I’ll move on with them stealing things. It’s not safe with some of the addicts around here. I hate seeing druggies around and the used needles. I absolutely hate that.

“A girl woke me up at 3.30am in the morning. She scared the hell out of me. Somebody can creep up to you like that. They can try to attack your or rob you. Quite a lot of homeless guys do get attacked at night.”

After another member of the group arrives with a sleeping bag for Brian, we say our goodbyes.

Simon promises to bring along a copy of the research paper by homeless charity Crisis that they had talked about the previous week when he stops by the following week.

Our visit was typical of those now carried out every Wednesday evening by members of the support group’s outreach teams.

Simon said: “We find them in places like the canal, it comes and goes. There were 10 people sleeping there at one point.

“There’s two people I’ve know since I started who have disappeared and I’ve‎ no idea how they are. When you meet them every week it’s nice to be able to keep an eye on them.”

It is part of their efforts to reach those who do not visit the street kitchen held at the same time outside Mill Hill Chapel in City Square.

When I joined the main group earlier in the evening, there were around 40 men and women ranging in age from their early 20s through to their late 50s waiting to be served.

They queued up in front of a row of trestle tables manned by volunteers who dished up hot food and handed out bags of cold food to takeaway for the next day.

Some of those receiving food sat in the church grounds chatting as they ate and stopped on to talk to the volunteers about how they were getting on.

One homeless ex-veteran who came into contact with the group was able to secure a room in a bedsit and has since moved into his own flat.

On other occasions they’ve been able to help people find a hostel bed for the night, or tell them about other housing support services.

Meanwhile, dozens of diners were enjoying the fading sunshine just a few hundred metres away outside City Square’s popular restaurants.

Volunteer Claire Taylor, 41, of Cross Green, had previously been involved with a homeless support group in Huddersfield.

“I used to be homeless myself for three years. I know what it’s like to be on the street,” she said.

“Once you’re on the street, it’s hard to get back off. It was the Salvation Army that helped me. My friend invited me up to Leeds. It got me off the street and the drugs.

“I just talk to them. One of the guys has just got a flat and I’ve got some stuff to give him.”

The group was formed last winter by David Hedley and Marie Butler, who set up a Facebook page to bring together people who want to help the homeless in the city.

David, 50, lives in Meanwood, and first got people talking about the issue when he posted a message about a homeless man in Headingley who he passed on the way to work.

The group’s first street kitchen was held on the steps of the town hall on Christmas Day.

Marie, 49, of Ossett, said: “It went really well. There were sandwiches left, so we went round Leeds distributing spare food.”

But the joy was short-lived as the Boxing Day floods then struck.

“Things the rough sleepers had hidden under the bridges had been washed away, and one guy ended up in the river,” Marie said.

“I know we were the last people to give him a hot meal. I could cry thinking about it.”

It was soon after that the group appealed for tents and sleeping bags, and the now weekly street kitchens began to take shape.

Donations come in from individuals and now some businesses too, with Greggs giving leftover food and talks underway with a supermarket in the city.

The group is also building links with other organisations such as Leeds homeless charity St George’s Crypt.

Marie said: “We just do our best really. There can’t be a strict protocol because you don’t know what the next customer will bring.”

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