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The Kent Messenger supports Homeless Care's Christmas You Can Help campaign

At one point, while homeless in Maidstone and living in his car, Paul, 71, went 10 days without eating. He had to sleep sitting up as his possessions were crammed into the vehicle, leading to his legs swelling.

The grandfather, who has asked that we do not use his surname, says he was “dying” when he arrived at Maidstone Day Centre, after four months of being homeless. Now, thanks to the charity, the former plasterer has a roof over his head and is looking forward to getting back to work. Paul said: “I arrived here dying, underweight.

“From the day I arrived they treated me like a member of a family. I showered, they fed me.”

Maidstone Day Centre, in Knightrider Street, which is run by the charity Homeless Care, helps rough sleepers throughout the year, offering everything from showers and hot meals to housing and employment advice.

For the 20th year, the Kent Messenger is backing Homeless Care’s Christmas You Can Help campaign, which aims to secure vital donations, and runs throughout December.

This year, the charity is asking for financial donations as well as food, clothing and other useful items. Homeless Care also runs a foodbank, Food for Thought, which has seen a significant rise in users in the last six months.

Paul has shared his story to highlight the good and tireless efforts of the organisation.

He says he had an “idyllic” childhood in Maidstone and then earned his living as a plasterer and gambling on horses. However, when the pandemic hit, the racecourses closed and he lost his income. He was also never given £6,000 he was owed for buying materials for renovating a house.

He ended up sleeping in his car in Maidstone, and couldn’t drive anywhere, because his battery died. He felt nervous leaving his vehicle and one day a group tried to break into it, but he chased them away. What did he think about while he was in his car?

“I used to listen to the radio, I thought, ‘how can I get something to eat, how can I keep clean?”

When he arrived at Maidstone Day Centre, after a recommendation from the Salvation Army, he had lost four stone. Thanks to the charity, he is now living at Goodsell House, a home run by the charity that provides accommodation for the homeless. They have also helped him access his state pension, which he is waiting to receive.

Paul can’t praise the charity enough for their help, adding: “It’s as if they have known me for 50 years.”

The charity has also aided Stacey, 32, after she and her partner were living in a tent in the County Town for five months during the winter. Stacey, who has also asked we don’t use her last name, lost her job at a kitchen in Chatham when the pandemic began and her partner couldn’t work because of health reasons. She watched, helpless, as her loved one became and more and ill and was eventually rushed to hospital.

Afterwards, they were given accommodation and aid by Homeless Care.

“We had nothing, we had hardly any clothes until we came here. Now I have got a roof over my head I know I can start looking for a job,” she said.

Donations allow Homeless Care to continue helping people such as Paul and Stacy, and families in need. Homeless Care runs a foodbank from Maidstone Day Centre, for the homeless and those in need Giving money enables the charity to buy more protein and fibre at a discounted rate through organisation Fareshare, allowing Homeless Care to produce nutritionally balanced food parcels.

For less than £3, a tray of food can be purchased that would serve 20 people, and such donations are needed particularly as we approach the festive season. In the lead up to Christmas, Homeless Care regularly sees a “massive rise” in people needing to use its foodbank, and this year is no different.

Usually, the charity feeds around 200 people a month, but during the festive period is expecting to help around 360. There has been a particular increase in the last six months.

"It was like somebody had turned a match stick on," Maidstone Day Centre manager Matt Lamb said. He believes the rise in need could be down to the end of furlough, people losing their jobs due to the pandemic and the end of the £20 universal credit uplift.

Clients vary in age and sadly children are among those receiving the packages, including babies.

“It’s from very young babies who need size one nappies, to older kids,” Mr Lambs says.

As well as providing food to the vulnerable and homeless, the centre also hopes to support clients with sessions that improve their 'life skills'. The hub has eight members of staff, including a mental health specialist, and four volunteers. This year, it has seen a reduction in the number of rough sleepers it is helping. It is currently supporting 42 people, but only eight of those are rough sleepers, the others being vulnerable, at risk of losing their home or staying in Goodsell House.

In November 2020, the charity was supporting 38 rough sleepers. Mr Lamb says the decrease is down to the work of Maidstone Council’s Outreach Team, which works to get people off the streets. This reduction has allowed Mr Lamb’s team to support people on a “one to one” basis, and in October and November they trialled the ‘life skills’ sessions, which he hopes to launch soon.

The lessons will focus on IT skills, budgeting and maintaining a new tenancy. He believes teaching people about tenancy responsibilities and their rights will stop a “revolving door scenario”, where individuals lose their home and end up rough sleeping once more, enabling them to have a more stable life. The life skills classes will be led by staff member Richard O’Neill, who used to be homeless himself.

You can donate food for the campaign at Sainsbury’s in Romney Place and the Quarry Wood Industrial estate in Aylesford. Schools donating food include Maidstone Grammar School for Girls, St Simon Stock Catholic School, Oakwood Park and Invicta Park grammar schools, and Cornwallis Academy. Maidstone Grammar School is collecting financial donations.

Last year, more than 25,000 food items were given as part of the drive.

To make a financial donation towards Homeless Care, click here.

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