By Rachel Holtom 

This is the story of Warming up the Homeless (WUTH) and its volunteers, an inspirational charity which since its humble beginnings now acts as a lifeline for many hundreds of people in need all over East Sussex. The voluntary organisation started seven years ago, yet despite having two
charity shops and a big warehouse in Bexhill – helping people as far afield as Battle and Eastbourne – is still little known in Hastings where it all began.

Wake-up call

In November 2015 Bev Woolley woke up on the day before Black Friday and, feeling disgusted with its greed and needless spending, determined to turn the day into what she subsequently called ‘Blanket Friday’. She and a small group of friends then met together and planned how they would go along the seafront and give warm blankets and sleeping bags to people sleeping rough.

CREDIT: Dave Young

Once they had done this Bev realised there was much more to accomplish, so in April 2016 she and her friends organised a gig in the Pig in Paradise, which raised £500. This enabled them to start giving out food as well as protection from the cold and then in Bev’s words: “We realised we needed to become more organised and so started a Facebook page and obtained offices in Hastings”.

They won a community champions award and shortly after this Trudy Hampton became involved as a volunteer. Trudy has an extraordinarily astute business head and quickly realised that she could mobilise people and funds. WUTH was registered with the Charity Commission in 2018, and with a group of volunteers now numbering 300, Trudy has made it into a dynamic organisation which gives out around 600 hot meals, 1000 breakfast packs and receives 2000kg of donated food from supermarkets every week. She is an energetic, self-confessed workaholic, who now as CEO and volunteer puts in 120 hours a week for the charity. “I drive my husband mad,” she says, “but he still supports me.”

Jez’s story

Many people have had their lives turned round by Warming up the Homeless, WUTH volunteer Jez is just one of them. He feels that he wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for their intervention, especially as the charity firmly believes that providing food and helping towards more secure accommodation is not enough. Like Emmaus – another charity with a strong presence in Hastings and Bexhill – WUTH believes that giving a person dignity and providing them with a purpose is almost as important as their basic survival needs.

Jez’s story illustrates so clearly how a person with a good job and a stable family can suddenly, through no fault of their own, become derailed to the point where they feel life is no longer worth living.

Jez, volunteer for WUTH
CREDIT: Dave Young

“I was born in St Leonards Hospital on 25/10/67,” he says, “and lived with my parents in Bexhill till I left home. After various jobs DIYing, I became a regular soldier and did that for 10 years, but once I’d got married and had children decided to leave and get a regular job.

“I worked as a builder doing all sorts, we specialised in maintaining crazy golf courses in Holland, Ireland, Wales and of course Hastings. Last year I was helping to build a swimming pool in Ashford. I was working on the digger, and then I don’t remember a thing. It was a one in a million accident. I’d done all the safety checks; but the digger hit a stone and tipped over and was stopped by my head. My son saw it, everyone thought I was dead.

“I was taken to Kings Hospital by the air ambulance and was unconscious in ICU for 10 weeks. I was told afterwards that there was an 85% chance I’d be a total wreck. 

“When I was discharged, I went back to my family in Hastings. I could just about speak, but it was hopeless; I couldn’t stand noise and it was all too much. I spent a while in rehabilitation units, but they didn’t want me to be independent so in the end I decided to act on my own. I got a flat and everything I needed. It was a real battle – they didn’t want me to leave. They wouldn’t give my medication back, but in the end I managed to escape.

“Someone told me about Warming Up the Homeless. I was very doubtful. I went for an interview with Trudy and I decided to give it a try. I didn’t think it was for me. That was last August and now I’m here almost all the time. It’s changed my life, helped me, and now I go out and help people.

“Last night my four children came and had dinner with me, they stayed the night, and I took my son to the train station to get to college, then took my daughter to school. It’s all I want, just that and helping people. I’ve got everything I need now, my independence, somewhere to live, work that helps people and most importantly my children. My wife and I are in touch with each other, but we are happier separated.”

Expanding to meet growing needs

The charity has two shops in Bexhill and is about to open one in Battle. Most people are very aware of the dire lack of accommodation in Sussex, which has been exacerbated to a huge degree by Covid and the influx of people moving from inland towns to the coast to find houses and flats with gardens. This has pushed the cost of accommodation beyond the reach of most local people on a low income and as a result homelessness has rocketed.

As well as the food parcels, breakfast packs and hot meals WUTH also has a rapid response team with a 24hour helpline, a baby bank providing essential items for babies and young children, a bedding bank and drop-in centres offering a safe space with hot food. The charity also has a specialist housing lawyer and recently teamed up with Nationwide to offer bank accounts.

As the story above shows, while the money we donate and the food supermarkets give help people to survive, the shops and running of the organisation itself give people a purpose, a reason to stay alive.

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