An award-winning homeless charity is being forced to axe its weekend cover because of a £74,000 cash shortfall.
SIFA Fireside in Birmingham can no longer afford to hold drop-in sessions on Saturdays and Sundays as its staff, some of whom are facing redundancy, struggle to balance the books.
The cut in funding has been sparked by changes in the commissioning of drug and alcohol services, a key part of the charity’s work.
A high proportion of the people that depend on SIFA Fireside for a daily meal and shelter have mental health problems and/or drug and alcohol addictions.
Although the centre, in Allcock Street, Digbeth, does not provide breakfast or lunch at weekends (as it does during the week), it is often the only place the city’s homeless can go for a warm drink, a shower and temporary respite from the cold and rain.
Crucially, the drop-in service acts as a gateway to help for some of the most vulnerable and isolated people in Birmingham. The lure of a cup of tea and a biscuit at the weekend can be enough to get reticent, frightened people to walk through the door and talk to trained staff about their complex needs, which might include drink or drug dependency, severe depression, psychiatric illness and poor health. Some people have turned up suffering from hypothermia.
SIFA Fireside is now seeing problems surrounding human trafficking and the fall-out of people taking so-called legal highs (stimulants, sedatives and hallucinogens which are often sold as incense and plant food).
The weekend sessions will end from March 1. It means rough sleepers will be left in limbo from 1pm on Friday, when the centre will close after lunch, until 9am on Monday, when it will reopen for breakfast.
Typically, 35-45 people attend the weekend drop-ins each day compared with 125-140 on any given weekday.
Stripping away the moral argument for helping some of the most marginalised people in Birmingham, the financial imperative is overwhelming. SIFA Fireside, quite properly, has to justify its expenditure and compiles a Social Return on Investment report. In 2013-14, this concluded that every £1 invested in the organisation saved public services nearly £10.
The tangible benefits include improving visitors’ health and well-being, managing health conditions and therefore cutting admissions to accident and emergency departments; reducing alcohol misuse and related hospital admissions; working with West Midlands Fire Service to improve safety in squats (I have been in squats that have been firebombed – it’s not good); working with the probation service and police to tackle antisocial and offending behaviour; and giving people something that it is hard to put a value on – hope.
Ok, so why does this bother me? And why do I think it should bother Birmingham?
I am, by profession, a journalist and I happen to write about food quite a bit. I don’t make a fortune, far from it, but I get access to some wonderful experiences and sometimes I do stop and think: “By golly, Richard, you are a lucky so-and-so.”
In fact, I most frequently think I am a lucky so-and-so when I see a grubby, god-forsaken pitch in the city where someone is sleeping rough. Yes, I do think, “There but for the grace of God etc etc” because I truly believe we are all one step away from the precipice.
Just the other day, before I heard about SIFA Fireside’s latest problems, I came across this sight as I walked into the city:
This miserable bolthole, lashed with rain, is on the cusp of Birmingham’s financial district, where lawyers, accountants and property investors lunch at some of the city’s finest restaurants. Good luck to them, and I mean that sincerely. I am a firm believer in the economic importance of the hospitality sector and the role it plays in education and employment. I am often in awe of the skills and commitment displayed by its practitioners.
But there has got to be something inherently wrong with England’s second largest city when cardboard beds are a far from rare occurrence in 2015.
The city has just launched a plan to turn Snow Hill and the Colmore Business District into a mini-Canary Wharf. It is here that I stumbled across the makeshift shelter pictured above. The idea is to create 10,000 new jobs and boost the local economy by more than £600 million each year.
Yes, £600 million.
Now the cost of providing SIFA Fireside’s weekend drop-in services, for a year, is a bit smaller than £600 million. It is… £13,000.
Figures are great, aren’t they? The good folks who market Birmingham have plenty of them. Here’s another one: the region’s business, professional and financial services sector is said to generate £15 billion each year. Not one billion – 15 of them.
I have no idea if this figure is accurate but imagine that: £15 billion.
And just to reiterate: the cost of providing SIFA Fireside’s weekend drop-in services for a year is £13,000. That’s probably less than a mid-season rebrand for a minor law firm.
But I’ve got another great figure. I’ve saved it till last. It’s not the biggest one but if you are interested in the insanity of local politics you will like it.
The figure is: £1 million. That is what Birmingham City Council shells out in interest payments, each month, for the Library of Birmingham.
That’s the £188 million Library of Birmingham that the glossy guides flag up as being indicative of the new spirit of Birmingham. The one Malala Yousafzai opened.
The one the city can’t afford.
Each month, the city where I live hands over £1 million of taxpayers’ money to a man with deep pockets in order to settle a debt for an asset that’s all rather lovely, but only if you can afford it. Which we can’t.
There have been demonstrations at the library over proposed cuts to opening hours and job losses. Of course, I feel for anyone facing redundancy. It has happened to me twice.
But no one is going to die if the library shuts early. Unfortunately, that may well happen when SIFA Fireside shuts up shop for the weekend. Alarmist? Judge for yourself:
A story is related to me of a man who recently turned up at a drop-in session. He was confused and looked troubled. An experienced worker approached him, got him a drink and listened as he explained how he had never spoken about them before.
What did he mean by “them?”
The voices, he said.
The voices were connected with the BBC and they were telling him to kill members of a specific racial group. He was worried he was going to hurt someone. But he couldn’t stop the voices.
The worker spoke to the distressed man for two hours and arranged for him to be taken to hospital. He ended up being admitted for treatment for a severe mental health illness.
It is a true story.
This is also true: half of what Birmingham City Council pays daily in interest payments on the Library of Birmingham (it writes a cheque for about £32,000 each day) would cover the cost of SIFA Fireside’s weekend drop-in sessions for a year.
The interest accrued over two-and-a-half days would wipe out the charity’s entire cash shortfall.
Alternatively, Birmingham’s business community could come together and solve the problem. We’ve got some of the best business brains in the country.
Or is the proud place once lauded as the “city of a thousand trades” incapable of coming up with £13,000 – or £74,000 for that matter?
I once played a small part in highlighting the plight of SIFA Fireside when its breakfast service faced closure in early 2014 (http://bit.ly/1eGzz7c). The city proved its mettle then and stepped forward to save the day. I can’t believe it won’t do the same now.
- Please help raise awareness about the end of weekend drop-in services. On Twitter, you can use the hashtag #SaveSIFA
- To find out more about the work of SIFA Fireside, go to: www.sifafireside.co.uk
, which provides a lifeline to rough sleepers and vulnerable people suffering