Earlier this week I took part in the #TeamHonk challenge for Sport Relief with the lovely Vanessa and Sarah. Today, my daughter has excitedly scooted to school in her track suit ready for a day of sport and a sponsored mile run. Tonight, Sport Relief ambassadors and celebrities will be all over our TV screens. But where does the huge amount of money raised actually go?
Well, Sport Relief funds are split 50/50 between overseas projects and funding initiatives and good causes right here in the UK. Lots of them will be small, local organisations who are not well known outside of their local community, but who do vital work and deserve highlighting.
This week I had the opportunity to visit NOAH Enterprise, a local charity who provide support and assistance to some of the most disadvantaged in the community. Dealing with a wealth of issues that come with homelessness, they offer a pathway to help people back onto their feet, and to re-start their lives.
Service users come along to the centre for basic needs such as a hot meal from the canteen or the evening soup kitchen; use of the showers and toilet facilities; use of the laundry; appointments with the visiting doctor and dentist; as well as specialist help dealing with housing departments; form filling; language skills; re-training; work experience; job-seeking advice; addiction recovery programs; and more holistic services such as art therapy and drama and music workshops to regain confidence and purpose.
The day centre is open every single day of the year and provides a final safety net for those who have fallen through all the cracks. This is often the last point of refuge.
You can tell, that this organisation uses every penny to the benefit of the people it supports. They don't have plush offices, swish signage or fancy merchandise. The centre is rough around the edges, but they don't waste money on unnecessary frippery. The team work tirelessly to raise money in any way they can, tapping into local businesses to use their staff and skills. They've had the MD of a local aviation firm come in and give invaluable advice on job-seeking, large fast-food outlets provide food to the canteen one day a week, and other firms have donated IT equipment and office furniture.
The problem of homelessness is a rising one. The latest rough sleeper count in Luton where NOAH are based was 53. The previous year it was 33. The latest rough sleeper count in nearby Bedford where NOAH are starting to work was 51. The previous year it was 25. Jim O'Connor the Chief Executive explained that this represented just the tip of the iceberg. It doesn't take into account the huge numbers of sofa-surfers, those in temporary accommodation, those in hidden squats or those who sleep on the outskirts of the town centre such as the rising number of tent sleepers.
I used to work for a homeless charity and I know just how hard it is to raise funds. Homelessness is not a sexy charity, and you have to work hard to compete with the big charities who have huge budgets for marketing campaigns and advertising. Cancer charities for example are ones that everyone has some kind of personal connection to one way or another, but homelessness and addiction still has a stigma attached. There's still a feeling amongst some members of the public that they've brought it on themselves - I can't tell you the amount of discussions I've had with people about this issue.
But I think now, opinions are changing. The current benefit cuts and austerity measures have given a stark reminder that actually, most of us are only one or two pay packets away from being in the same situation. The rise of food banks and the media coverage of that has opened up the conversation about poverty. Many of the people who use the day centre, have found themselves in a spiral of poverty brought on by just one or two life changes. A redundancy, a relationship breakdown, a bereavement or an illness can be all it takes to start this journey to homelessness.
The staff at the centre had organised some people for me to interview, but this is always tricky with the transient nature of the service users. We weren't able to meet the lady I'd been expecting to meet, but what happened unexpectedly that day gave me much more of an insight into how NOAH works.
As we were standing chatting in the corridor, a woman walked by. She stopped and reached out her hand to my face. She was around my age, but her face was puffy from crying and she had a cut above her eye. She then took hold of my hand and held it tight. All I could do was squeeze hers back. We stood for a few moments in silence, but I could see the desperation in her eyes.
When she spoke, tears spilled over. She was imploring me to help her, but she spoke no English. Communication was impossible and I've never felt so helpless.
Thankfully, there were staff on hand who could interpret. While she asked for help, she never let go of my hand once. It was such a personal moment of despair and I felt as though I was intruding, but for some reason she wanted to hold onto me. All I could do was offer her a hug and hold her hand. Maybe that's what she wanted? Some human touch and interaction?
She spoke to the staff in her own language, admitting she was struggling with alcohol and asked for help to recover. There was a flurry of activity as the guys started the ball rolling, and lots of gentle explanation of her need for commitment to a program.
Admitting an addiction problem is such a huge turning point in someone's life. I don't know what had happened to get her to that point, but clearly it was her moment. The staff were not going to let that moment pass. I know how difficult recovery is for anyone, but for someone living such a chaotic life, sleeping in a squat, miles away from her friends and family, I can't imagine how difficult her journey is going to be. She now has the right support, and I hope with all my heart she makes it.
As I left the centre, I walked through the town to visit the NOAH Boutique charity shop to see their fundraising activities there. The shop was calm and quiet, with volunteers steadily working away in the background stocking the store and serving customers - raising funds and gaining valuable work experience.
As I browsed the books, Amy Winehouse came on the radio. Listening to the words of Rehab, the stark contrast struck me between the celebrated artists and 'tortured souls' who have a talent which brings them world-wide fame, and those who are completely unknown, ignored by almost everyone who passes them by on the street. Sadly Amy Winehouse never overcame her addiction problems, I really hope the story with the lady I met turns out differently.
Sport Relief have given £30,000 over three years to support their work. This supports their art, music and drama workshops, as well as cookery lessons and running the food kitchen. If you'd like to donate, you can sponsor the Team Honk challenge here.