Caring for a coastal community in Whitstable

24 April 2024

With its harbour full of small fishing boats and its picturesque shopping streets, Whitstable on the north Kent coast is a popular place to visit. Like many tourist towns, it has seen an explosion in homes turned into Airbnb’s and an increase in what are known by some locally as the “DFLs” - “Down From Londons”, new people who often see Whitstable as a chic and affluent place for the weekend. But, between the beach huts, in the woodland and in the carparks, you can find the town’s homeless community.

In social housing, live some of those who have come to the town later in life. These are very different visitors, for them Whitstable may have been a place they visited as children or with a partner in the past. When life gets difficult, following the death of a loved one or a relationship breakdown, Whitstable is a place they return to in the hope of rekindling a sense of security and belonging. Sadly, the reality can turn out to be isolation and vulnerability.

The Haven Project at St John’s Methodist Church was opened by Churches Together in Whitstable in 2016 after street pastors saw increasing numbers of people rough sleeping along the beach.

Jackie Carter is one of the co-ordinators at Haven. “The street pastors saw for themselves that people were sleeping among the beach huts and shelters. Sleeping rough was dangerous with threats and possessions vandalised. Opening the centre was a way to provide immediate relief and support. No one appeared for the first two sessions but then one person from the homeless community came along and word quickly spread.

“We offered showers, support and companionship. Now we give a much wider range of services including hot meals, washing machines and emergency food to see people through a couple of days. We also have experts from the local council and other agencies who come along to offer help and advice. When someone does get a home, we work with the local church network to help them furnish it with things like sofas, curtains and rugs that are not provided by housing associations and can be expensive.

Last year alone, Haven gave out 1800 meals, 700 food parcels 27 tents, 13 sleeping mats and bags, 21 ruck sacks, 14 mobile phone and even four refurbished bicycles.

Martin began coming to the centre after becoming homeless following a relationship breakdown and ending up living in a van for three years. A type 1 diabetic with COPD, living in the van compounded his health problems. Haven initially helped Martin with somewhere to get himself and his clothes clean. “I was lonely and scared. People would pull up and try to get into my van at night. I was running out of hope, it was only the occasional visits from my kids that kept me going. Haven helped me get my life back together. They helped me to get my own flat but I still come to the centre for support and company. My real friends are those I have made here.”

Cathy is originally from Croydon, and like many of those older people who live on the coast, she moved here later in life having visited as a child. Having once been an auxiliary nurse, she comes to Haven as it helps with her loneliness after her husband died almost 10 years ago and the recent death of her sister. “I go to the shops on my own, go home on my own, I come here for a cup of tea and to talk to people. The staff are very kind and keep an eye on me and help me complete my forms for benefits and housing.”

Graham Godly is a founding trustee and treasurer of Haven, “This has been a tremendous witness to those in the town who maybe don’t attend a church. They see what is going on here and become interested, they realise that there are people in town who need help and they support us. Each year we total around 2,000 hours of volunteering time. The whole project has grown from just rough sleepers to something that has had a positive impact to the whole town.”

Jeremy is one of those who volunteers at Haven. He attends another church in the town but describes his service as an 'Act of God'. "As you get to know the individuals here you get past the layers of their lives and you see them as people. The centre brings joy and God speaks to us through these interactions.”

Trevor, another volunteer, said that although they do not push religion, they do have people who have found faith, ”We often have people who ask if they can be prayed for, especially when we have the minister present. We even have some people who have begun attending local churches because of coming here.”