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A helping hand for those in need

Recently, the papers seem to have been full of doom and gloom; at work, Rhona Aikman is seeing more people who have had to take a pay cut or reduced working hours and also some who have lost their jobs because of the recession. However, she had one of those days at the weekend that puts life into perspective ...
I was on duty at a homeless café in Glasgow. I have been involved with "Café Simon" as it is known for six years now. It started out in a lane at the back of a church serving soup and sandwiches on a Friday night, mainly to rough sleepers. The priest offered the use of a small hall and kitchen and the café moved indoors which was a great improvement.

It now operates on a Friday evening and a Saturday and Sunday lunchtime. The charity that operates the café is part of the Simon Community. On a Saturday we usually have between 16 and 24 at the café. In winter the numbers tend to go up, with men far outnumbering women.

Over the last couple of years I have noticed an increase in the numbers coming to the café from other parts of Europe. On speaking to them, it appears they came here for work and have not always found it easy sometimes resulting in becoming homeless. Many of those using the café have a problem with drugs, alcohol or mental health. Not everyone is a street sleeper; some have places in a hostel or move between friends a night here and there where they can. Others may have obtained a tenancy and the Simon Community works with people to support them to sustain this.

No questions are asked and anyone is welcome. One of the things that I have noticed is how the service users will look after someone else. One of the regulars is a frail elderly lady who lives alone and seems to be lonely. She lives fairly near the church and I think comes for the company. Regulars make sure a seat at the table nearest the door is free for her to make it easier for her and usually someone will offer to walk her home.

Usually there are three volunteers on but occasionally only two and it can be quite hectic. You can always rely on some help from a couple of regulars if it gets very busy.

The elderly lady I mentioned was not there last week having apparently had a fall in the street a couple of weeks earlier. Several people were able to tell me what had happened and how she was getting on since going home. There was real concern about how she was managing.

Over the years I have seen many examples like this. There was a young man who used to come from time to time and whenever he appeared he had a bar of chocolate for this lady. As people leave the café they almost all will call out a thank you. On the odd occasion my mum is not there with me I will get asked if she is OK.

Those coming to the café are transient some will have been coming for a long time but many come intermittently depending on how chaotic their life is at the time. I try to have a chat if someone seems to want to talk. We have contact details for other facilities and organisations which can provide help.

Several members of my family have been involved over the years helping out when required. My mum, aged 75 and nephew, aged 16, have been helping for some time now. I was not sure about my nephew helping out when he first asked but I needn't have worried as he coped easily and chats comfortably to the service users.

A few years ago a patient who is diabetic asked if I knew anyone who could use some boxes of chocolates that she had been given at Christmas. I told her about the café and the following week she brought in a number of boxes of chocolates and biscuits. The following year she brought them again just after Christmas. She then moved to another part of Scotland but just after Christmas a huge box arrived at the health centre from her with a huge selection of goodies and this has arrived each year since.

Another lady who is also a patient had heard about the café from someone else and offered to do some baking for me. That must have been a couple of years ago, and every month when I am on duty at the café she bakes a wonderful selection of scones and shortbread. She even includes the butter and jam for the scones. The lady who does this baking has recently turned 80!

Several organisations take turns providing the soup and sandwiches. They include a group from the church, a local secondary school, an upmarket delicatessen and the local Buddhist community. Quite a varied group. Volunteering need not take up a lot of time and can have positive benefits for the volunteers too.