Homeless charity in Essex says its new home will help save lives in the wake of the pandemic

  • ITV News Anglia's Charlie Frost joined the charity for a busy lunch service

I first visited Sanctus in December 2019 when the charity was prepping for its two day Christmas lunch service.

It was a hive of activity, the day centre filled with music and chatter with steam filling the tiny kitchen as the volunteers made enough roast potatoes for more than a hundred people.

When I returned in April 2021, it was quite a different place. Volunteers still doing their best in a kitchen barely big enough to swing a cat. But, in the place of all the tables and chairs that once filled the cafe, there were rows and rows of tins and packets of food.

By 12.30pm a queue started forming outside, homeless and vulnerable people there to pick up their take-away warm meal and other supplies.

Each greeted by David Clarke, a former service user who now works for the charity. Behind a perspex screen David asked them how they were, knowing each and everyone by name.

It was slick and everyone came away fed, but lockdown had removed the community dining atmosphere that Sanctus was so well known for.

This was where the charity was working from before the big move. Credit: ITV News Anglia

The charity had done so well during the pandemic, serving almost 17,000 hot take-away meals out of its small space on Broomfield Road in Chelmsford.

Without the daily sit down meal though, it was tougher for them to provide the other vital part of their service.

The lunch is a hook to build up relationships with people so Sanctus can help them apply for housing, access mental health or addiction support or address financial and benefit issues.

Lockdown initally stopped this hub service all together, but when they were allowed to they started up again. Speaking to people on the phone or meeting people in their tiny courtyard space, where they'd fitted a gazebo to help protect them from all of the elements.

Sanctus completed over 1,100 free support sessions in these conditions in 2020. The importance of these sessions, especially during Covid-19 can't be underestimated.

  • David Clarke is one of the charities many success stories. Battling with drug addiction for much of his life, Sanctus became his sanctuary, and gave him the support he needed to change his life. He now works for the service, helping others on the same journey he's been on. Here he chats to Charlie Frost about that journey:

Many of the charity's clients suffering deteriorating mental health or severe financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic, just one session could mean they complete a benefit form, or decide against taking their own life.

It's openly acknowledged in Chelmsford that Sanctus significantly reduces crime and anti-social behaviour.

It saves lives, but until this month, it had been doing it from a centre which just couldn't meet the need - especially with restrictions easing, and welcoming back indoor diners.

Former heroine addict David became a regular at lunchtimes five years ago, now he's a member of staff.

Day centre Sanctus served almost 17,000 hot meals to vulnerable people from its tiny kitchen in Chelmsford last year. Credit: ITV News Anglia

Fast forward to today, and that hive of activity I discovered in December 2019 is back, but in a brand new home.

In February Sanctus began renovating a former restaurant next door to the small premises its occupied since 2011.

£60,000 later and with lockdown lifted, it opened the doors of its new centre on August 17th.

The facility is so much bigger, the kitchen finally big enough to fit more than two people in (and swing plenty of cats!), there's much more seating, storage and two more floors on top of that.

On those two floors, offices, space to hold one to one sessions - no more courtyard and gazebo! And also room for training, and for other agencies to come in to deliver mental health services, housing support, domestic abuse specialists, and so, so much more.

The new facility is much better for everyone. Credit: ITV News Anglia

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Fifty service users came for a warm curry on the day I visited for a lunch service in their new premises.

You can't underestimate the value of a meal and somewhere warm and dry to sit, surrounded by support and friends.

It's an experience that for 18 months was taken away for so many due to the pandemic.

It is easy to see this new environment is better for service users and volunteers, and now people are back dining together, more people will be offered the one on one session support.

Something more and differing types of people are needing, because of the pandemic.

It will also enable other agencies to work together in the office space, and offer service users a one stop shop for all of the help they need.

It's hoped that by doing this it'll lead the way in Chelmsford's post-Covid-19 recovery, supporting those who have been disproportionately affected.

The new centre also has two top floors where Sanctus and other agencies will work together to offer support to vulnerable people.

Sanctus Hub Manager Emma Hughes said, "Our building will be at the heart of the support system currently being developed in Chelmsford and will be utilised by other external support services. The new building can be the catalyst required to create the multi-organisational approach to tacking homelessness and other vulnerabilities. Our extended services will include more work with those suffering from social isolation, mental health and domestic abuse through in-house and externally integrated services.

"It's time to plan for the post pandemic world. Before and during COVID, there was and is a huge demand on our cafe and Hub services as we are the only day centre in Chelmsford and surrounding areas. These services will soon become overwhelmed based on the mental, social and financial impact of the pandemic."

As the need increases post-pandemic, Sanctus is ready to lead the recovery.

Equipped with its new home, and its cafe filled once again with friendship, I have no doubt it will save even more lives.