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Retiring Homeless Care volunteer looks back at 35-year history of Maidstone charity helping homeless

From a soup run, with volunteers giving out sandwiches prepared in their kitchens to rough sleepers in parks, to a charity which transforms lives in countless ways, Homeless Care has grown exponentially in the last 35 years.

The Maidstone-based charity now manages a day centre and accommodation for homeless people, as well as a food bank.

Maidstone MP Ann Widdecombe opened Lily Smith House, where Maidstone Day Centre is based, in 2004. She met client Michael Tucker, and is pictured with, from left, Mike FitzGerald, Peter Walters, Patricia McCabe and Maidstone Mayor, Cllr Peter Hooper Picture: John Wardley

One of its longest-standing volunteers is Angela Clay who, after more than three decades of service, is set to stand down as the charity's secretary. She spoke about how the charity has changed and how the need for such services has increased.

It had humble beginnings, starting off as a soup kitchen, run by founder Patricia McCabe and Maidstone Girls Grammar School pupils, along with other volunteers, which operated about three days a week.

Mrs Clay discovered it by chance at Christmas in 1986, when she walked into Maidstone United Reformed Church in Week Street.

"I was walking along when I saw an open door and for some reason my feet walked towards that open door," she recalled. "I found Patricia McCabe inside organising a soup kitchen for Christmas, so I got involved."

Angela Clay in 2016, collecting a turkey from Woolpack Corner Farm in Biddenden, to feed the homeless at Christmas Pic: Martin Apps

From there the enterprise grew, with volunteers preparing Sunday breakfasts for rough sleepers, loading up sandwiches into their cars and handing them out to homeless people in parks, and chatting to them, if they wanted company. There were no more than six volunteers at a time, Mrs Clay remembers. In 1986, the organisation was named Maidstone Christian Care.

Then, nine years later, a day centre for the homeless was opened at Lenworth House, at the end of King Street, thanks to donations from members of the public and grants from trusts. That same year, Angela became its secretary.

The centre was always going to be temporary, due to the many costly repairs needed and in 2004 it moved into a custom-built complex in Knightrider Street. It cost £3.8million to build, the money coming from the government's safer communities fund.

As well as the day centre, the complex, called Lily Smith House, included temporary accommodation for homeless people, run by English Churches Housing, a separate organisation. Maidstone and the Weald MP Ann Widdecombe opened Lily Smith House and Mrs Clay remembers the ceremony was so well attended, she couldn't even get in.

The facility now provides food, clothes, showers and support for clients who walk through their doors. In 2005, foodbank Food for Thought was launched, to "address the fact there were children going to bed hungry, not going to school having eaten, elderly people having trouble making ends meet but too proud to ask for help," Mrs Clay remembers.

Eight years later, the charity teamed up with Goodsell House Trust, to manage Goodsell House, which provides accommodation for homeless people.

In 2021, Goodsell House is still "thriving," she says, adding: "It's really helping people to establish some sort of regular lifestyle with better conditions and hope."

The long-standing volunteer has repeatedly witnessed the generosity of the public, from a bakery donating a van, companies voluntarily redecorating the centre, to Callum Dunne, a teenager with autism who raises funds through holding an annual Christmas lights display at his home.

"People are so kind. It isn't just people with loads of money, often people who are struggling themselves donate," she says.

For 20 years, KentOnline's sister publication the Kent Messenger has supported the charity by backing its annual Christmas campaign, calling for vital donations. Earlier this month, manager of the day centre, Matt Lamb, spoke of how demand for the foodbank had increased in the last six months.

He suggested it could have been down to the end of furlough and the £20 Universal Credit uplift, as well as people losing their jobs in the pandemic.

Angela says the need for services like Homeless Care just "grows and grows", adding: "If you are rough sleeping and get substance misuse, it's a horrible thing to go through.

"Unless you are walking in somebody's shoes, you really shouldn't judge."

As she looks back at her time with Homeless Care, which now costs about £250,000 a year to run, Angela is proud of what has been achieved.

She added: "It sounds grand to say the charity has changed lives. The charity has enabled people to move on to a life with a happier future."

To give a financial donation to Homeless Care's Christmas You Can Help campaign, click here.

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