I had never heard of St Vincent de Paul before my time on the Nicest Job. I guess there are so many charities in the UK that one can’t know them all, but I am glad I know about them now.
Set up by wonderful people in the community, it aims to help individuals living in poverty. I was killing two birds with one stone this week as it’s also my first time in Newcastle. Other than going to Scotland with UA, I have never been this far north before and didn’t really know what to expect either. I must say, Northerners are very friendly!
Newcastle is a lovely place, vibrant and multi-cultural, but in places just a few hundred yards outside the city centre, the level of poverty is frighteningly real.
After being picked up by Steve, the area manager for SVDP we headed over to their main centre in Newcastle to see the types of activities they have for the local community. Once a monastery, it’s now a hub of activity that caters to people in the surrounding area. From bingo afternoons to ballroom dancing; it lends itself to all walks of life. After my wonderful guided tour I was introduced to Studio Chilli, another registered UK charity that provides art sessions to people with disabilities. Being a small charity that turns over just over £100k a year, they rent room space from SVDP to provide their service.
Being an avid artist I can completely empathise with the importance of being creative. Art is incredibly therapeutic and, for people with mental health issues, can be a real life changer. What blew me away was the level of talent in the room. Pictures fit for the Tate Modern. It’s small projects like this that really deserve our support. So me being me, I imparted as much knowledge, wisdom and contacts onto the charity as I possibly could to give them a boost. If I’ve done anything of any value this week I’ve put them in contact with people who can really help.
After another short tour around I headed back to my hotel, ready for an early night. It was a long journey to Newcastle. I actually started my week with them on Tuesday because I had a slightly exciting opportunity on Monday. For those of you who don’t know I was listed on the Independent on Sunday’s Happy List. Which recognises 100 inspirational individuals from around the country. Monday night was the awards ceremony and I got to take the delightful and charming Zoe, who supports me on the Nicest Job to enjoy the fruits of our labour. It was a wonderful event and I met so many inspirational people.
I learnt a valuable lesson on Wednesday; gratitude. We all go to work. We all pay our bills. We all enjoy having a little splurge now and then. But have you ever considered, even for one minute, that all of that could be gone in a puff of smoke? Everything you’ve ever worked hard for, all your dreams and aspirations gone in a few, short, weeks.
I found out how that can and does happen at the SVDP hostel for the homeless. I spent my Wednesday at the impeccably refurbished hostel that provides the best care and accommodation for men and women on the street. And no, before you cast any first judgements, not all these individuals are drug and alcohol abusers. Some of them, like Steve, fell into incredible misfortune and ended up with nowhere to go.
Steve is one of those people who you could easily judge from a first glance. A shaved head and stocky build with a scar down the left side of his cheek; he’s probably not the sort of looking person you would want to meet down a dark alley one Friday night. But, looks can be deceiving. He’s the loveliest guy. Steve had a big house, a brand new car on the drive and a wife that he loved dearly. After debt crept in, relationships began to break down, one thing lead to another and he was left one night looking for a place to sleep on the street after loosing everything. Everything he worked hard for and loved was taken away in the blink of an eye. So, being resourceful after only 4 nights sleeping rough he found SVDP.
Steve has now turned his life around and volunteers at the charity, helping to paint and decorate rooms ready for newly homeless people to step into. Whilst getting to know him I grabbed a paintbrush and spent the day painting and cleaning 3 rooms ready to welcome more individuals ready to rebuild their lives.
He was fascinating. Telling me all the tricks of the trade. From where to find free food everyday in Newcastle to who and where to avoid. He learnt fast, relying on his most basic of instincts; survival.
It’s not something you ever, ever consider. Loosing your job and house and being so destitute that you have to turn to the streets. But unfortunately it’s the reality for more people than you care to imagine. So thank God for places like SVDP. And I use that word aptly as it was a former monastery.
I did however meet two young men whose lives have been ravaged by drugs. We all know the usual class-A substances, but what is frightening is the rapid rise of ‘legal highs’. These synthetic substances are concocted in bathtubs from all manner of things from bleach to talcum power and are sold, yes sold, in corner shops around Newcastle. You did hear me right. Substances potentially more lethal than heroine are as freely available as booze and cigs. Legally.
It is these new substances that are being banned may I add, as we speak that have devastated the lives of the two young men I spoke to. I sat with them for a short while as they told me their stories. Being hooked from the ages of 15 they quickly and very rapidly declined. Talking to them now, they feel they have ruined their lives. And it’s only now, after luckily getting support, they realise what they have done and do their best to urge young people not to make the same mistakes.
I felt luckier than ever walking back to my hotel that night. Knowing that I had a safe and secure place to rest my head.
Now you all know that I am a glutton for punishment. So on Thursday I donned some very fashionable working gloves and a hard hat and set out on the SVDP van collecting all of the clothes that had been donated to the clothes banks around the area – slightly less hard work than last week, but still pretty manual. I actually collected 2 tonnes of clothes. 2 tonnes! It is just unbelievable what people donate and moreover, what people throw away.
Coming from a retail background it’s not ever something that retailers really consider. The throwaway society that we now live in is more rife than I ever realised. These bins had only been emptied 2 days prior to our visit and they were full to the brim!
After saying my goodbye’s I headed over to the train station for my journey back home. It was on the train I really had time to let what had just happened sink in.
It was a very eye opening experience and has really left me thinking about things in my own life. I have never been more aware of how important it is to help those around you in need. When things go wrong for family, friends, loved ones or even neighbours; help. Because we are all, just a day away, from a terrible misfortune.