Published: 12:01, 14 May 2020
| Updated: 12:03, 14 May 2020
A soup kitchen volunteer has praised the amazing community response to feed hungry homeless mouths during the crisis but says a rise in sofa surfers offers further food for thought.
The Gravesend Methodist Church has remained open to rough sleepers in need of a cooked meal and a shower throughout the crisis.
Its daytime centre in Wilfred Street has continued to run three drop-in sessions during lockdown on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 10am and midday.
The soup kitchen also offers practical support and mental health counselling to visitors with the assistance of Porchlight, Kent's largest charity for homeless and vulnerable people, which praised the initial response of councils, charities and businesses.
Community centre manager Vicki Clarke has been running the facility for years but says it has become overwhelmed since the outbreak of Covid-19.
In total the centre has helped more than 129 guests this year and has around 30 regular rough sleepers at each drop in session.
The mum of four praised her team of volunteers who she says have been doing an "amazing job" alongside other local services like the Gravesham Food Bank and Tony's Table to feed those in need.
It has now been nearly seven weeks since the government lockdown and its instruction to councils to provide accommodation to the homeless to curb the spread of coronavirus.
Since March 23, Gravesham council has placed 39 single people, two childless couples and two families with children into emergency accommodation.
All were placed into private sector providers, temporary shelters and B&Bs and have been signposted areas for further support.
But as Vicki explains, these people also need to be fed and have access to other services to turn their lives around.
She says she is aware of at least another 19 people who are still on the streets.
Many of the individuals relying on the service are regular faces looking to secure permanent accommodation while also seeking help for issues with alcohol and other dependencies.
This can prove tricky when attempting to register for support or banking services, she says, when they do not have a fixed address.
But without basics like a working mobile and access to contactless credit this can prevent them from accessing support at the first hurdle.
"Everything is just a vicious cycle," she added.
The church volunteer says the current crisis has brought another issue to the surface in the form of sofa surfers – she knows of at least 10.
Often dubbed "the invisible homeless", these individuals do not show up in national or local statistics.
Instead they stay at the homes and sleep on the sofas of people they know.
But the coronavirus lockdown, with its social distancing measures, has meant many have been asked to leave and so people have nowhere to stay.
"What the Covid-19 situation has highlighted is the number of people who are not registered as rough sleepers," she said.
"It is unbelievable the amount of people who are sofa surfers. We don't realise this until a situation like this arrives."
This is also having an impact on their mental health, she said, adding, "many guests say they would not get by without our help".
However, Vicki is worried about their ability to cope with the rising demand and says the service, which is run independent of council funding and relies on donations, is already operating close to capacity.
"Before, we helped anyone who is vulnerable but to reduce numbers and prevent contamination we have made it rough sleepers only."
Despite these challenging times Vicki recalls some heartwarming stories, including a former visitor who has now come back to help fundraise.
Last month a rambling vicar shared his experience camping out in his garden to raise funds for the homeless.
It came after the Gravesham Sanctuary, which provides an overnight refuge for rough sleepers, was forced to close during the crisis over concerns for social distancing.
"We are all working together to do our bit but there are just so many obstacles," Vicki said.
The Methodist Church is calling for donations to be used mainly for food, but also for much needed gloves, masks and disposable aprons for protection.
Donations to the Daytime Hub can be made here.