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Dorset's Homeless at Christmas...

It is a cold, bright winter day in Poole, the sun is glinting on the harbour, seagulls screech overhead and the streets are packed with Christmas shoppers. Round the corner in the United Reform Church men of all ages are filing in for a free lunch of baked beans on toast.

Looking at these guys, dressed in overcoats or fleeces, some wearing sunglasses, you would never guess that they were homeless, that for many of them last night’s kip was in a doorway or a car park. It is a sharp reminder that their fate has simply twisted, their family life has broken down, they have fallen into addiction, lost control. It could happen to any of us.

Routes to Roots, a Christian charity,  in Poole offers a lifeline to Dorset’s homeless striving to cover their most basic needs for survival. For, though the ambition is to get people off the streets and into accommodation they deal in reality here. Reverend Pat Southgate, founder and chair of the charity says: “Our aim is to move them on from the streets, to give them back their self-esteem and a vision of how their lives could be. But you just know some of them aren’t going to make it.’ So R2R makes sure those sleeping rough have a coat, hat, scarf and sleeping bag and access to hot meals. The charity pays for them to have breakfast each day at The Fisherman’s Café (at a cost of £3 per head) and there are regular evening soup runs under the flyover. On Christmas Day they’ll be cooking a huge roast turkey here with all the trimmings donated by the local Asda. And R2R's outreach workers will search through the night trying to find the hidden homeless, to make sure they are safe and know where to find help. An outreach worker searching the streets at 6am Today on a chilly Monday lunchtime, it’s a friendly, upbeat scene, the volunteers laugh and joke with the men who sit together chatting as they eat their baked beans then rummage through the mammoth tower of black binliners for new clothes. The atmosphere turns on a knife edge when Steve wanders in and starts shouting at Liz, an outreach worker. He is aggressive, threatening and reeks of alcohol but Liz listens to him unfazed. ‘How much have you had to drink?’ she asks calmly. ‘I’m closer to Jesus than you are!’ Steve yells before stomping off but he’ll soon be back for more and Liz says she may end up calling the police. He has good reason to be angry today, discharged early from hospital after serious stomach surgery and, unless the council steps in to  find him accommodation, he’ll be recuperating on the streets in the bitter December weather. Others, like John, a quietly spoken man in his fifties, choose homelessness over the alternative – a bedsit where they can feel threatened. Ex-military, John has been sleeping rough for years. ‘I’ve tried the bedsits but you can get bad people kicking your door down and you’ll get no sleep all night, it’s just a nightmare.’ Then there’s Carl, a polish guy, who’s currently in housing but will be back on the streets by the end of the week, due to 'a situation with the Job Centre'. Keeping the men in newly won accommodation is a major part of the charity's work, Reverend Pat says. R2R helps them to fill out benefits forms and will take them to the housing office, the Job Centre, wherever they need to go. ‘But sometimes the responsibility of looking after their own place is too much. It’s heartbreaking,’ Pat says. At the weekly R2R drop-ins, the emphasis is on rebuilding lives and giving hope for the future. Boredom, lack of motivation and a sense of rootlessness are one of the biggest problems and R2R has created an outreach project at nearby Holtons Heath, where the homeless can work clearing bracken, planting an allotment, talking freely. This, says Pat, has been one of their most successful ventures. "Whilst the guys are working they open up. They will suddenly start talking about their families they don't see any more, their hopes and dreams for the future. It's just a great thing to do with them.' Towards the end of today's drop-in, Martin comes over to talk to Pat and her co-workers. He is badly lame, facing a leg amputation in a few days but his spirits are high. 'I'm moving into a flat in a few days and it's all down to you. I thank you with all my heart.' It is palpable and touching evidence of how Routes to Roots is constantly changing lives and a counterpoint to the despair Pat sometimes feels when alcohol or substance addiction get in the way of her work. Routes to Roots needs volunteers, especially drivers, who can help ferry the homeless to Holtons Heath. And, of course, it needs regular donations throughout the year. For £1 they can buy a pair of socks, £3 is the cost of a hot breakfast, £25 a sleeping bag. As Pat says: '“These guys are not just homeless at Christmas. It's all year round for them.' Find out how you can help Dorset's homeless here    

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