Christa Ackroyd: I was left sick to my stomach by homeless in this city with empty houses

A COUPLE of weeks ago I went to a posh do, the kind of do that in many ways has fallen out of fashion. We are a much more casual bunch post Covid don’t you think? Or were we heading that way before we threw away our high heels and gave away our long frocks to the local charity shops after two years of going out was put on hold?

I think we were. For example whatever happened to dinner parties? And I don’t just mean the kind of invitation where you pop round for a casual supper clutching a bottle of wine, but the sort of event where you as host sent out invitations a month before, dragged out your cookbooks and spent days planning to cook food you had never cooked in your life – with varying degrees of success.

Just reading this had made me smile. Who am I kidding calling a more informal evening meal shared with friends ‘supper’? Apparently if I did it would mean I am posh, which I am not. So I don’t. Supper was what my mum made for my dad around 9pm at night, which in his case was usually cheese and biscuits with a cuppa.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But my goodness we thought we were posh throwing a dinner party. We dressed up to the nines. The men wore jackets and ties and as hosts we put candles and flowers on the table and the children to bed early. This was sophisticated adult time. Years later came the safari supper where you travelled between neighbours houses providing a course at each but then that was a time when your friends lived next door and neighbourhoods were tight.

A homeless person trying to keep warm
Photo credit should read: Nick Ansell/PA WireA homeless person trying to keep warm
Photo credit should read: Nick Ansell/PA Wire
A homeless person trying to keep warm Photo credit should read: Nick Ansell/PA Wire

Going back even further I remember being so impressed to be invited every Saturday night to my friend Paula’s house for ‘dinner’. Of course like most Yorkshire folks, dinner was at dinner time and we had tea at around 5pm. Not in Paula’s house. Coming from a large family with what seemed liked dozens of older sisters, their current boyfriends and one brother, ‘dinner’ at Paula’s house was a loud, joyous raucous Saturday night affair.

And wine ? I came from a family where a bottle of Mateus Rose or if we were really splashing the boat out, a bottle of Black Tower, at Christmas. And so the bottles upon bottles of raffia bound chianti on Paula’s table seemed incredibly glamorous to a 17-year-old.

Of course my mum and dad got dressed up too. They were of the dinner dance generation. Mum went to the hairdressers on a Saturday for a shampoo and set and emerged in the early evening wearing pearls, a handmade long skirt with just the hint of lurex and a soft pussy bow blouse while dad in his dinner suit got out the car and left it warming up in the driveway. I can still remember the menus they brought home. Three courses with a glass of sherry pre dinner where starters were always a choice between soup, prawn cocktail or a fruit juice, main course Coq au vin, steak (well done) or Place Bonne Femme and pudding, sherry trifle, apple pie or ice cream. Oh and coffee and mints after the loyal toast. It seemed so so sophisticated.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

In the nineties, there came the balls. Run by committees and often at impressive venues, they raised money for good causes. And I went to more than my fair share. Post Covid, balls, dinner dances, or whatever you wish to call them, are much rarer events. But when they come around they are still to be enjoyed, but until a couple of weeks ago I had forgotten how much fun they were. And so, accompanied by my chief Homeless Street Angel we set off glinting in full evening dress to walk from our hotel to the magnificent Cutler’s Hall in Sheffield to the launch of the Johnny Nelson foundation. Johnny was a world champion boxer from the Brendan Ingle stable of boxers and following the example of his late great trainer had decided to celebrate his MBE with the launch of a charity to help disenfranchised young people.

As we wound our way through the streets alongside dozens of other guests equally glammed up for the night we were laughing and joking that we could hardly walk anymore in anything other than trainers. And then we saw them. We had seen them as we arrived at our hotel a few hours earlier. Homeless people on the streets or by the time evening came huddled in doorways. Fortunately in her handbag Becky had taken with her some £5 gift cards from a well known bakery that we handed out. It was in a more sombre mood that we arrived at the stunning gilded venue. I suppose what shocked us more was that in every doorway on the way to Cutler’s Hall there seemed to be a man lying down asleep. There were no begging signs, no blankets, sleeping bags or the remnants of food. They just seemed to have laid down and given up.

I mention this because this week in a council meeting in Sheffield we learned there are almost 7,000 empty homes in the city. Reading the report in this very newspaper the point was made I believe in relation to the income Sheffield Council derives from them. No mention was made of the homeless. But the empty houses are not all owned by private landlords. In December last year the council admitted that 1,000 of its own homes were lying empty. Even taking account those that were unfit to be let the figure was still 761.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And that dear readers is a disgrace while men and women, yes there were some women on the streets of Sheffield, are rootless and homeless. Homelessness cost the council a little over £2m pounds last year using mainly temporary hotel emergency accommodation. This year they forecast spending to be just short of £7m tackling the same issue. And yet there are thousands of empty homes and hundreds of empty council houses. The two things quite simply don’t add up.

I know councils are cash strapped. I know there are hundreds of good causes that rely on charity which is exactly the reason we were in Sheffield that night. But for heavens sake can all councils get their act together and demand more help from the Government for those without a roof over their heads or the largely unknown numbers who are sofa surfing to stay out of the cold. I feel enormously privileged to be invited to many events in many Yorkshire cities, to get dressed up, renew acquaintances and often raise money for good causes.

But I am sick to my stomach that either walking to and from such events the underbelly of our society which used to be hidden is now all too obvious. To all who raise money to help, thank you. To those who believe charity begins at home, not everyone has a home. And until we all agree that in 21st century Britain that is unacceptable we are, as my granny once said, nothing more than fur coat and no knickers.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.