The blog that brought home the bacon

A breakfast service for the homeless, axed due to an unprecedented cash crisis, has been re-launched – with a little help from this blog.

SIFA Fireside caters for some of the most vulnerable men and women in Birmingham and reluctantly took the decision to end its morning meal provision for the first time in its 30-year history.

However, the service was reinstated this week, following a six-week absence, after a number of donors, including the Wragge & Co Charitable Trust, stepped up to the plate (yes, pun intended).

A resident of Acocks Green gave the charity £1,000 while the Worcester Warriors Rugby Club and the Sikh Midland Langar Seva Society have offered help in kind.

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It is a fantastic and unexpected turn around in events which, for me, illustrates two things: first, a little blog, through the wonders of social media, can have a disproportionate, positive impact beyond the egotistical adulation generated within the twittosphere; and second, and most important, there are some very decent people in the city that I, and a million people, call home.

If you are new to the story, here’s the background:

SIFA Fireside was forced to pull the plug on breakfast in early January because it could no longer make the sums add up, the balance sheet having been sent into a tailspin by rising costs and reduced funding. It has been a familiar story for charities, across all sectors, throughout the credit crunch, the subsequent recession and the stumbling recovery.

Birmingham City Council funds salaries and some of the overheads at SIFA Fireside, but the charity relies on the generosity of the local community for the practical help it provides. It relies on donations of food, sleeping bags, clothing and toiletries to help homeless people get through the next 24 hours. A number of the rough sleepers have dogs as companions so dog food helps too. As do knitted canine coats…

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I had previously reported on SIFA Fireside’s outreach work, an experience that challenged and changed my outlook on the homeless, both who they are and how they get to be in such a mess. Basically, it could be you and it could be me. That much I now appreciate.

“The homeless” is a catch-all term and includes individuals affected by alcohol and drugs misuse, trauma (in all its guises), unemployment and mental health problems. Similarly, “socially excluded” is a politically acceptable phrase we use for people who have nothing. The people who turn up at SIFA Fireside’s drop-in centre in Allcock Street are seriously socially excluded.

On a cold, wet night, with the temperature hovering just above freezing, I accompanied the charity’s operations manager Carole Fox on a visit of the secret squats, railway arches and (literally) holes in the ground where the chaotic, the confused and the forgotten bed down amid urban squalor. Places like this:

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Fast-forward to January this year when Carole told me the charity, based behind the city centre’s Chinese Quarter, had been forced to end breakfast. The money had run out.

I was genuinely non-plussed. It costs about £10,000 a year to provide the tea, cereals, toast, yoghurts, fruit and the occasional full English to up to 140 homeless people who had grown to depend on the service. This wasn’t luxury frippery; this was a functional service to sustain life.

Now £10,000 is a lot of money to me and it probably is to you. But to the collective might of a city in the developed world, which once prided itself on being the city of a thousand trades, it struck me that £10,000 probably wasn’t an unachievable sum.

So I did the only thing I know how to do: I got a bit angry and wrote about the situation. (http://bit.ly/1hxLL0U)

To my surprise, the story subsequently became the most read in the thus far short, nine-month life of RichardMcComb.com. Thousands of people, complete strangers to me, clicked on the story. The plight of SIFA Fireside’s breakfast service, and the devastation its closure had caused to the homeless, spread through social media. Here, my merry band of Twitter followers (@mccomb) – and their followers – are to be applauded for their intervention, comments, tweets and retweets. I can’t thank them enough and I know SIFA Fireside feels the same way.

The story was subsequently picked up by other local media organisations. My old colleagues on the Birmingham Mail – whose news editors do a noble job in challenging circumstances promoting community news – took up the story, as did regional television. The story gained what they call traditional and digital media traction. I didn’t care what it got or what you call it. I just wanted what Carole, the team at SIFA Fireside and thousands of other people wanted: for breakfast to be restored.

Fortunately, the story was also picked up on Twitter by Lorna Gavin, head of corporate responsibility for Wragge & Co (@wraggeandco) which has a longstanding association with the homeless charity.

UnknownHomelessness is one of the core priorities for Wragge & Co’s partner-funded Charitable Trust and SIFA Fireside was Wragge’s charity of the year in 2005.

Lorna told RichardMcComb.com: “Because of our long-standing connection with the charity, I contacted the partners and said, ‘If the trust isn’t here for this, what is it here for?'”

The response from the trust was swift and unequivocal. Lorna was authorised to contact SIFA Fireside chief executive Cath Gilliver immediately to pledge £5,000 towards the reinstatement of the breakfast service.

With the help of other cash pledges and offers of help, the service resumed this week.

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Cath said: “We have been completely overwhelmed by the response to the news that we had to stop serving breakfasts to the city’s homeless people. The generosity of the city’s residents and businesses has been fantastic.”

I asked Carole what she thought. She said she would have a think and get back to me. Here’s what she wrote:

“Richard took time out one evening to go on Outreach with me. I feel I can safely say it was a real eye opener for him as I’m sure it would be for most people. There are in all towns and cities people that become virtually invisible at night even though they have no home or a safe place to go to.

“At SIFA Fireside, we believe our breakfast provision is vitally important to both the physical and emotional health and well-being of these people who are sadly often perceived as a blight on society, a judgement often made without knowing the reasons that have led to them becoming so vulnerable.

“Due to financial constraints, having to cut our breakfast service was a real blow to the team. However, Richard’s blog was brilliant. It created attention to our plight, galvanised the public and really got the ball rolling by raising awareness of just how devastating the loss of this service was to homeless people.

“It is great to see how a local blog can have such a powerful impact with the ultimate effect being that the community and businesses have now pulled together to re-instate our breakfast service.

“Massive thanks to Richard and his blog for helping to turn such a bad situation around and enabling our service once again to provide a healthy breakfast for some of the city’s most vulnerable people.”

But thanks, most of all, to all of you. I just wrote the story. You did the hard work.

I happen to know an organisation that knows a lot about hard work, too. It is called SIFA Fireside.

 

 

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