LAST week it was announced that Stroud District Council has the best record in the entire South West for preventing homelessness. The authority quite rightly received high praise from The Homes & Communities Agency for its work in early prevention and support.

Much of this crucially important work is down to noticing early on when people are in trouble and stepping in to help, support and find accommodation. But with many of the reasons from homelessness very complex, painful and multifaceted, there will inevitably always be those who fall through the cracks and safety nets in society.

To see first-hand how these safety nets help those who struggle with homelessness, the SNJ paid a visit to a drop-in service and community meal which caters for anyone and everyone who is rough sleeping, sofa surfing, living in poverty or going hungry in the district.

This free drop-in service is run three times a week by Stroud-based Christian charitable organisation the Marah Trust, whose volunteers offer a free hot meal with no questions asked and give rough sleepers a welcoming place to meet and socialise.

From their hub at the Stroud Valley Scouting & Community Centre in Chapel Street, they work with people on the margins of society, those who are excluded from the everyday, positive experiences of life due to their circumstances.

“Many of the people here really are on the edge of existence,” said Marah volunteer Jackie Natt. “They are on the very margins of our society.

“There is a mix of people who are actually homeless and sleep rough in Stroud every night and others who jump from one person’s sofa to another night after night and others who are council tenants.

“Most of them sleep in very poor conditions and can’t get a hot meal from one day to the next. Some won’t have spoken to another human being for several days and many struggle with mental and physical health problems. Of course, many also struggle with addiction to alcohol and drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

“A lot of those coming to us are aged between 40 and 50 and older and the majority are men. Many are those who have had problems in their lives such as accidents which have prevented them ever working again, and have lost their families because of it. There are some really tragic stories.

“While we have helped people turn themselves around, that’s not really our purpose here. Our role is to offer friendship, wholesome food, advice, respect and hope to the people who come to us for assistance. We want to catch people before they become homeless and stop them spiralling into chaos.”

The small room is busy with chatter as people walk in off the street and are given a hot meal, tea and coffee and a plastic bag filled with enough basic food for the week. Some haven’t eaten in three or four days, others look unwashed and tired, and one older man walked in with three bags filled with a dirty duvet, pillows and of all his possessions.

While some sit on their own in silence while others talk in small groups as two or three volunteers wind their way through the crowd serving up drinks and speaking and listening to people to make sure they are okay.

“It’s hard to put a figure on how many people we have come in, but I’d say we have somewhere around 200 people that come in and use the service,” said Michael Athienites the Drop in manager. On average there are around 45 people per session. When Marah started this project 16 years ago we used to hand out food on the steps of the Sub Rooms.

“We’ve grown in size since then and established ourselves within the community so a lot more people know about us. They trust us now and know they aren’t going to get asked any difficult questions or be pestered. It’s a non-judgemental, welcoming and safe place for them.

“The drop-in service is an 'open door' which means that people can come and go as they please during opening times and there is no need for an appointment to join us for a meal or to talk to a casework volunteer.”

He continued: “I’d say that over the last few years we’ve seen a big increase in people using the service, partly due to benefits changes. We really do see a lot of people in hardship these days because of issues with their benefits.

“As things are mostly online now many of these people can’t cope and find it too tough. A lot of them don’t have access to a computer or couldn’t use one even if they did. And when you couple that with mental health problems or substance misuse it becomes even more problematic.

“It means people lose their foothold and spiral. Some of them have been sleeping rough for two years now. It’s almost always a number of different issues combined that forces people onto the streets.”

One of those who relies on the service is Steven Drabele, who has lived in Stroud for 12 years and used the service for three years.

“The volunteers here are amazing,” he said. “They really go out of their way to help us with anything and everything. If we have problems they do everything they can to help.”

He has been struggling with an addiction to alcohol and was laid off from his job 15 months ago. Though he is getting support for the drinking problem he also has issues with arthritis and cannot work.

“I don’t know what I would have done without Marah,” added Steven. “It is so important to so many people here in Stroud. I think they should get more recognition for the work they do.”

Mrs Natt added: “The generosity we see from our community is incredible too. All the clothes we give out are donated from residents, churches or supermarkets. People bake cakes, knit scarves, donate toiletries and clothing - their kindness always amazes me.

“As well as giving out donations we also help with trying to find people employment. We have the P3 service here and we help people organise interviews, attend meetings and get help from Citizen’s Advice. We just try and give them as much support as possible.

“We have helped to resolve welfare benefits problems, such as housing benefit and rent arrears issues, including weekly top-up payments. This work is key to ensuring that people do not become homeless.

“We survive on the amazing work of our 45 volunteers and grants from from the public, churches and grant-making bodies including Stroud Town Council.  We want the service to function well, but beyond that we don’t want to grow any bigger. It’s not that kind of organisation. A lot of them really do rely on us so much. And you can see the generosity and appreciation.”

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