Sanctuary 21 homelessness drop-in offers hope this Christmas

published on 8 Dec 2022

For people who are sleeping on the streets or are getting back on their feet after a period of homelessness, Christmas can be a tough time of year, bringing back memories of home or happier times spent with family.

In Durham, The Salvation Army’s Sanctuary 21 cafe will open its doors on December 25 to welcome people for Christmas dinner with all the trimmings and to share gifts.

Led by church leaders Darryn and Karen Hook, the Sanctuary 21 café is open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays all year round to provide practical support to rough sleepers, including warm clothing and sleeping bags, wash facilities, free or discounted meals and signposting to further support.

Darryn said: “Sanctuary 21 has been open for 13 years now supporting Durham’s homeless community. Key to our support is Christian compassion, helping those who are vulnerable or less fortunate get back on their feet again.

“Our building is open three times a week for people who are homeless or vulnerable. It is a place of sanctuary where people are made to feel welcome, valued, accepted and safe. They have somewhere warm to sit, get a hot meal and drinks, and are able to engage with agencies such as housing teams, drug and alcohol misuse support and health professionals. We also sell drinks and snacks to members of the public with funds raised going towards our work.

Karen and Darryn Hook
Karen and Darryn Hook from Sanctuary 21

“Karen and I are here if people just want to talk. Many will be struggling with their mental health or addiction issues and are used to being ignored or isolated on the streets. Showing compassion and friendship is vital.

“It is incredible to see how far some of our clients have come from when they first walked through the door. People who were sleeping in shop doorways, who had nothing and felt hopeless, have now moved into accommodation, are tackling their addiction or getting help with their mental health and are feeling hopeful.”

Sanctuary 21 also runs The Alpha Course – a 10-week course exploring Christian faith.

Karen said: “A small group of people come together weekly to share a meal and talk about faith. The conversations are open and can go in many directions.

“We have found that many of our clients have benefited from this, either in exploring or strengthening their own faith journey, or through interesting discussions and questions that arise regardless of whether they have a faith. Sharing a meal and having a regular meet up has led to some strong friendships developing, which is wonderful to see – people who have a shared experience coming together and helping each other through what is the hardest period of their lives.”

It is incredible to see how far some of our clients have come from when they first walked through the door.
Darryn Hook

Every Christmas Day, Darryn and Karen host a Christmas dinner of turkey and all the trimmings for people who want to attend, many of whom would have nowhere else to go.

Karen continued: “Christmas can be a time where it really hits people who may have lost contact with their families or struggle with the fact they are no longer have a home to call their own. The aim of our Christmas meal is to make sure people are not alone, as well as celebrating the achievements of our guests. Last year one of our regulars, Pete*, read out a poem he had written about his time on the streets, which had many of us in tears.”

Pete first came into contact with Sanctuary 21 after becoming homeless on leaving prison. He received food and drink, and was able to meet with housing officials, and is now in supported accommodation. He has made some good friends in Sanctuary who he now describes as ‘family’.

Speaking of sleeping in shop doorways for six weeks near Christmas last year, Pete, 52, said: “It was around Christmas time, coming towards the end of term for students so there were lots of parties, people coming for a night out, it was horrendous, absolutely horrendous. People were out in the streets until 3am, so you couldn’t sleep even if you wanted to. There were incidents of abuse, it was horrible, absolutely horrible, but then I found a quieter place to sleep and it got better.

“I was sleeping rough until a couple of days before Christmas so I saw families and people doing their Christmas shopping, which hit home, but there were also an awful lot of nice people who would sit and talk and offer to help me. One morning I had been sleeping in a doorway and I woke up to see two carrier bags full of useful things, some cutlery, tinned food, wipes and blanket. A lady had written me a note offering to help, it was beautiful. I thought the world was a horrible place, full of horrible people, but to be fair the horrible people are few and far between, there are good people out there including at Sanctuary 21.

“I came to Sanctuary 21 for my Christmas Day dinner and read the poem I’d written on the streets. It was very emotional, and I didn’t expect a reaction, but people teared up.”

If I hadn’t have come to Sanctuary 21, I’m not sure whether I would still be alive

Struggling with an addiction, Zak* spent three months sleeping on the streets and was provided with food, hot drinks, a warm sleeping bag and a listening ear at Sanctuary 21. He is now in supported accommodation.

Zak, 40, said: “If I hadn’t have come to Sanctuary 21, I’m not sure whether I would still be alive, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be.

“Last Christmas Day, I was sleeping rough. I came to Sanctuary 21 for Christmas lunch, then I was on the streets the rest of the day. The morning and lunch was unbelievably good because I was in Sanctuary, but after this it was the loneliest day of my life, there was nobody about at all, I was just walking round and round by myself, it was bad. I always loved Christmas, it was my best time of year.

“This Christmas I will be back at Sanctuary 21 for lunch. I am in a much better place than I was last year. I was talking to one of my friends about how we will have a proper Christmas. He was also homeless on Christmas Day last year, so we will come here for our dinner then we will go and blow a few balloons up and have a proper day. Last year I slept on the streets and this year I’ll be in my own bed.”

Find more information on Sanctuary 21 here.  

*not their real names

Stephen sitting in his home with a Christmas tree in the background, he is smiling in to the camera.

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