Why it's taking volunteers on the streets to help those on society's fringes

Brian was hovering near a strip of scrubland as we walked over with a bag containing a hot meal, bottled water, a sandwich and some snacks.

Homeless Leeds Support Group founders Marie Butler and David Hedley
Homeless Leeds Support Group founders Marie Butler and David Hedley

For the past few weeks he had been sleeping among bushes on the outskirts of Leeds city centre, hiding his few belongings in the nook of a tree until nightfall.

But following the theft of his sleeping bag and camp mat a few days earlier, he had been sleeping with only a pillow.

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Homeless Leeds Support Group volunteer Simon Rickles made the introductions and we settled down for a chat on a metal panel laying nearby.

Graphic: Graeme Banderia

Now middle-aged, Brian has been homeless on and off since he was 12 years old.

He had recently been in hospital for an operation on his hand, but was now back sleeping rough with his hand in a bandage.

“I’ve stayed in flats and houses for a while,” he said. “The reason it probably didn’t last was because of mental health problems.

Graphic: Graeme Banderia

“I think there’s a lot wrong with mental health provision. It’s far too reliant on drugs. They don’t address the social things, the emotional things.”

Brian suffers from anxiety and a sleep disorder, which also affects his physical wellbeing.

He has completed some studies university studies in the past, but often finds himself feeling self-conscious about his ability to interact with others.

“I’m extremely socially isolated,” he said. “There’s one guy in a restaurant that I chat to. I just have a cup of tea and chat.”

The recent theft of his belongings had clearly shaken him though, and later Simon told me that it was not unheard of for the tents used by the homeless to be set alight.

Brian said: “I think I’ll move on with them stealing things. They can try to attack your or rob you. Quite a lot of homeless guys do get attacked at night.”

After another member of the group arrives with a sleeping bag for Brian, we say our goodbyes.

Our visit was typical of those now carried out every Wednesday evening by members of the support group’s outreach teams.

Simon said: “We find them in places like the canal, it comes and goes. There were 10 people sleeping there at one point.

“There’s two people I’ve know since I started who have disappeared and I’ve no idea how they are. When you meet them every week it’s nice to be able to keep an eye on them.”

It is part of their efforts to reach those who do not visit the street kitchen held at the same time outside Mill Hill Chapel.

When I joined the main group earlier in the evening, there were around 40 men and women waiting to be served. They queued up in front of a row of trestle tables manned by volunteers who dished up hot food and handed out food parcels.

Volunteer Claire Taylor, 41, had previously been part of a similar group in Huddersfield.

“I used to be homeless myself for three years. I know what it’s like to be on the street,” she said.

“Once you’re on the street, it’s hard to get back off. It was the Salvation Army that helped me.”

The group was formed last winter by David Hedley and Marie Butler, who set up a Facebook page to bring together people who want to help the homeless in the city.

Its first street kitchen was held on the steps of the town hall on Christmas Day.

Marie, 49, said: “It went really well. There were sandwiches left, so we went round Leeds distributing spare food.”

But the joy was short-lived as the Boxing Day floods then struck.

“Things the rough sleepers had hidden under the bridges had been washed away, and one guy ended up in the river,” Marie said.

“I know we were the last people to give him a hot meal. I could cry thinking about it.”

It was soon after that the group appealed for tents and sleeping bags, and the now weekly street kitchens began to take shape.

Donations come in from individuals and now some businesses too, with Greggs giving leftover food and talks underway with a supermarket in the city.

The group is also building links with other organisations such as Leeds homeless charity St George’s Crypt.

Marie said: “We just do our best really. There can’t be a strict protocol because you don’t know what the next customer will bring.”