Art classes close after funding sources dry up

FOR many Yorkshire residents, the Arctic conditions which have besieged the region over recent weeks have meant putting an extra bar on the fire, or wearing a thicker jumper around the house.

Drivers have abandoned their vehicles, commuters have worked from home and pensioners have been forced to wait indoors for icy pavements to thaw.

But for David Simpson, one of hundreds of homeless people sleeping rough around Yorkshire, the freezing conditions mean a battle for survival.

Shockingly, he has been forced to spend recent nights sleeping in a hole dug into the snow in his home city of York, the shelter's icy walls the only respite he could find from the freezing temperatures around him.

"My original idea was to make an igloo," he says. "But the snow wasn't of good enough quality.

"So I made a kind of shelter with walls made of snow – there was no roof but it was shelter. And I crawled in with my sleeping bag.

"It was very cold, very wet. But I'm a bit of a survivalist."

Mr Simpson, an articulate ex-pupil of one of York's finest schools, is chatting over a steaming mug of tea at the breakfast club provided by Carecent, the York-based charity which brings warmth into the lives of those who need it most.

Its army of volunteers provide daily hot breakfasts and morning shelter for the homeless and the vulnerable of the city.

Reliant upon grants and public goodwill, Carecent is typical of the grassroots charities being supported by the Yorkshire Post's Communities in Need appeal.

The newspaper is asking readers and businesses to donate money to its regional fighting fund, with funds to be distributed to small local charities in the new year.

The importance of Carecent to those who use its services is clear.

"This place is a lifeline," Mr Simpson says.

But Carecent offers more to the homeless people of York than a much-needed hot meal and the welcome arm of friendship.

For almost a decade, it has also been running a weekly drop-in art class allowing homeless and vulnerable people to focus their minds on something creative.

For people like Terry Colvin, who has been coming to the 'A-Team' class each week since it first began, the experience has been life-changing.

"I'm a totally different person now because of A-Team," he says. "Coming here just gets the stress out of you and takes your mind off all your other troubles. And it's nice seeing the other people that come here. It's like a big family."

Tutor Cheryl Colley, who runs the classes, said it is this sense of community which transforms the lives of the people who attend.

"It's about not being isolated," she says. "If you're homeless you don't really see a lot of people.

"And even if you get re-housed, you then get put into a bedsit on your own and you're totally isolated again. This is a place where you can form friendships and support one another."

Ms Colley described the change that has come over Mr Colvin since he first arrived at her class 11 years ago.

"He sat over at a table by the window and for three weeks he never said a word," she recalls. "He was very shy and very traumatised. He'd say yes and no, and that's it. It took three months before I got a sentence out of him.

"But since then the change has just been wonderful. Now he comes in early, he goes and talks to people when they're new.

"If he thinks someone is upset he'll go over to them. It's taken a long time but Terry's a totally different person."

The tragedy for Mr Colvin and his fellow artists is that the classes have now been forced to stop. After more than a decade, their funding has simply dried up.

"It's just got more and more difficult," said A-Team committee member Tony Lawton. "We're ready to re-start the classes but we're in desperate need of funds."

Outside, meanwhile, forecasters are predicting more snow and ice over the coming days.

For Mr Simpson, survival will again be the overriding concern.

"I went to the homeless hostel in York, but it's been hopeless for me," he says. "They already had people waiting at the door – you weren't allowed to turn up until 9.30pm, so we were all freezing outside in the cold.

"And then they said there were too many people, there just weren't enough spaces."

Mr Simpson, 44, neither drinks nor takes drugs. But with mental health problems that, while troubling, are not severe enough for him to be taken into care, he believes he has "slipped through the cracks of the system" since he returned to England from abroad earlier this year.

With no money for a flat deposit and no family with whom he can stay, he feels he has nowhere to turn.

"It's very difficult if you've been abroad for a long time," he says. "With no deposit you can't get a house. With no address you can't get a bank account, you cant get a job.

"It's like you no longer exist. "