Like most charities, SIFA Fireside has been hit by a double whammy of financial cuts and rising costs. It simply cannot afford to provide the first meal and hot drink of the day to its growing number of users, the majority of whom rely on the free service.
Following a consultation with staff and client reps, the breakfast service was stopped last week (January 6). From now on, the 120-140 homeless people who depend on food from SIFA Fireside face going without breakfast and will have to wait until lunch, a tough proposition when you’ve just spent the night in the cold, sleeping rough.
Why am I writing about this on a blog dedicated to flashy restaurants and luxury hotels? The answer isn’t that complicated: as well as enjoying good food, I am fascinated by the stories that lie behind the fetishisation of modern cooking – the way food brings people together, shapes lives, creates jobs, raises aspirations, contributes to economic growth and in some cases, like those that present themselves at the doors of SIFA Fireside, sustains life.
If you live in Birmingham, you may marvel at the economic developments that are taking places in spite of the recession and its aftermath. The schemes may not be as grandiose as they were in the 90s and the Noughties, but the wheels of commerce are turning. The Mailbox shopping centre, which is home to a large number of restaurants, has just announced plans to spend £50 million on a revamp.
Yet collectively as a city it appears we cannot find the £10,000-a-year that is required to provide breakfast for the homeless who attend SIFA Fireside’s drop-in centre in Allcock Street. If the address is unfamiliar, and there’s no particular reason you should know it, Allcock Street is just a three-minute walk from the Bullring shopping centre, on the fringe of Chinatown.
SIFA Fireside chief executive Cath Gilliver says scrapping breakfast has been devastating and unavoidable. She says: “It costs a lot of money just to open our doors and, unfortunately, we no longer have the funds to be able to continue at such a cost.
“SIFA Fireside provides a vital lifeline for Birmingham’s homeless people, particularly over the winter months, and we rely on the support of local people and businesses to open our doors seven days a week.
“We recently made an appeal for food, as supplies were low, and we have been overwhelmed by the donations that came in. We’re extremely grateful for this support from the community, and to Birmingham City Council who fund the majority of our staff posts, but the stark reality is that a lack of financial donations means we have to cut down by half the number of meals we can offer the city’s homeless.”
A large percentage of the charity’s users have alcohol or drug addiction and/or mental health problems. I have met several of them, on various occasions, and they are among the most vulnerable men and women in the city. If you want a living, breathing definition of social exclusion, pop along to 48-52 Allcock Street. It is a chastening experience.
Cath Gilliver isn’t exaggerating when she says the drop-in service is a lifeline; and breakfast plays, or used to play, a vital role beyond providing obvious nutritional benefits. Breakfast, which used to start at 9am, was a way staff could get to, and engage with, the homeless at an early point of the day, giving specialist workers time to ring up other agencies, get users medical help, provide the cold, the unwashed and the alienated with clean clothes, sleeping bags and showers.
Last year, there were 29,000 attendee visits to this small drop-in centre. SIFA Fireside is, in effect, David Cameron’s Big Society concept (remember that?) in action. And this is fine, up to a point. The organisation runs on a very tight staff budget and relies on help from volunteers such as pensioners, off-duty emergency service workers, nuns, sports teams and worshippers from all faith backgrounds.
But SIFA Fireside still needs money to buy basic grocery items like bread and milk. The staff are an ingenious bunch, but no one has yet worked out how to turn one loaf and a packet of corn flakes into a meal for more than 100 hungry, sometimes scared, sometimes confused, people.
Carole Fox, operations manager for SIFA Fireside, says it costs about £50 a day to provide breakfasts for the Monday-to-Friday walk-ins. The menu was changed several years ago from a cooked breakfast to healthier options including cereals, toast, yoghurts and, when available, fresh fruit.
However, the charity’s budgets have been squeezed just as food prices, including bread and milk, have risen; it cannot make ends meet with breakfast.
Other than general feelings of anger and disbelief that Britain’s second biggest city cannot afford to buy a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea for some of its most chaotically vulnerable citizens, there’s another reason for writing this blog entry.
There’s a faint hope that someone, or several people – maybe members of Birmingham’s switch-on corporate community – will be similarly angered and that they might be able to help SIFA Fireside.
You may also be motivated to help due to highly selfish reasons. In the past, I’ve spoken to some of the men and women who have ended up at SIFA Fireside looking for help. I’ve seen where some of them live, in places where you wouldn’t put a dog: in leaking, filthy, decrepit industrial buildings; in condemned housing estates plagued by arsonists; in holes in the ground.
I’ve heard some of the stories about how people have ended up on the streets. And every time I have thought: one little screw up in my life, and that could be me.
- Carole Fox can be contact at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Twitter: @Sifafireside
Scenes from homeless life in Birmingham: these are the forgotten places that men and women using the SIFA Fireside services live. Pictures by Richard McComb
Condemned housing in central Birmingham where homeless men were living until arsonists struck. One of them was in the building but managed to escape:
A dinner table at a homeless squat inside an old factory in the Hockley area. The Polish men had done their best to turn the freezing, tumbledown building into a home – without heating, power or running water:
Half a mile from the Bullring, there is a hole in the ground in a blasted former industrial site where drug-taking is rife. A man with nowhere else to sleep was taking refuge here at night- out of sight and out of mind.