The Gatehouse is a community drop-in centre offering free support services for adults who are homeless, vulnerably housed, on low income and looking for company and community. They offer a free cafe six times a week, therapeutic workshops and a one-to-one casework team.
The Gatehouse brings together around 400 volunteers to run its regular cafe and therapeutic services, in addition to professional case workers who help individuals work through the issues that have led to them becoming homeless or vulnerably housed. The charity’s work involves direct outreach to rough sleepers on the streets of Oxford to make them aware of the services available. Around 162 individuals use the service on a regular basis.
The charity prides itself on employing people with lived experience of homelessness on the staff team. Project Director Kat Horne sits on the Oxford Homeless Movement Steering Committee, which aims to bring together all agencies in the city working with homeless people, but also ensures that new project ideas are approved by a Lived Experience Advisory Forum – and The Gatehouse’s service users are a key part of this forum.
The COVID-19 crisis meant that the cafe and community drop-in had to close, and the charity quickly looked at how to redeploy its staff and volunteers. Kat says: “We’ve been working in partnership with Oxford Homeless Movement to supply practical provision to the rough sleepers who have been temporarily housed in hotels and B&Bs, which can include clothing and toiletries.”
A grant from OCF’s Community Resilience Fund has now enabled the Gatehouse to carry on operating under a new model, setting up a food and drink delivery service to the vulnerably housed. The funding has also allowed them to move the one-to-one support online so that individuals can continue to be supported through their practical and emotional problems, which have continued or often worsened during the pandemic and lockdown. This can be as simple as ensuring phone credit is topped up and that someone has online access so that they can keep in touch with their networks and case workers, and feel less isolated.
As lockdowns eased the charity used the funding to manage the health and safety implications of reopening its hub to create a takeaway service, staffed by fewer volunteers than usual so that it could operate with social distancing. Kat Horne explains: “Our service users are not just rough sleepers or vulnerably housed people, but also people who feel isolated. It’s important that we re-establish, in a safe way, the sense of community that I think everybody has been missing.” It is likely that the takeaway service will continue for some time, even after the café has reopened.
Whilst having to change the way they work so rapidly has been stressful, Kat says it is also an exciting time for The Gatehouse and its volunteers. “One of the things I’ve learnt from this is that we can adapt and change. It’s given us a chance to review our strategy, to review our funding model, and to start planning our longer-term resilience. We want to work as collaboratively as working remotely will allow you to do – and that’s the strength of the Oxford Homeless Movement.”
OCF is hearing a similar message time and again from our delivery partners: that past the storm clouds of this crisis are some silver linings of hope for the charity sector to recover stronger, and build on this work to create a better society for everyone. We will be there to facilitate this through our funding and partnership working.