Churches Together in Herefordshire Action Team (CHAT) is an interdenominational group providing a range of welfare projects in the centre of Hereford. In 2008, lack of work due to inclement weather meant that many seasonal workers in the soft fruit industry were laid off. They gravitated to Hereford and, having no recourse to public funds, began begging in the streets. At the same time there was a high level of adverse publicity in the national tabloid press about the conditions under which it was alleged that migrant seasonal workers were living. This publicity also gave rise to negative attitudes in the local churches toward the employers. These two factors created a less than favourable atmosphere in the city and those villages near the fruit farms. At first, the Bishop of Hereford attempted to ameliorate the situation by offering vouchers for sandwiches and milk, but the demand became heavy and, in many cases, the system was abused by individuals not in need.
· a consultation with senior community figures such as the Local Authority, Police, Health and Voluntary Sector.
· a meeting with the employers only.
· a meeting with the churches.
These initial meetings chaired by a Bishop operated on a ‘Chatham House rules’ principle. Subsequent employers-only meetings took place. These were felt to be necessary because so much criticism was focused upon employers at that time. Indeed they proved to be vital in demonstrating the problems of employers and the misunderstandings which had arisen. Meetings of what became the Churches Network providing social, educational and cultural activities for seasonal workers also took place in order to interpret and understand the problems facing employers and develop services to meet the needs of seasonal workers. By 2010, these latter two groups had combined and now meet twice a year. This merged group is also attended by statutory agencies and is the only interdisciplinary liaison group in Herefordshire.
The other initiative was to call a meeting of all the Churches in Hereford and other interested parties from the voluntary and statutory sectors to examine how best to meet the needs of those with no recourse to funding, those who were rough sleepers including the indigenous homeless. As a result, a loose federation of Churches came together to set up what is known as CHAT or ‘Churches in Herefordshire Action Team’, which is coordinated by ASRT. Although initiated by the Anglican Church, therefore, CHAT is now wholly ecumenical.
· 11 hot meal outlets: at least one hot meal per day is provided every day of the week by eight denominations at their premises.
· a Community Larder was started by ASRT, open two hours per week using a voucher system from voluntary and statutory agencies.
· an Emergency Food Parcel Scheme is available for crisis situations for people referred by agencies.
A further development has been the Friday Project that arose as a result of the ASRT monitoring progress and assessing the needs of service users. This project offers training sessions on life skills, personal development and work-related skills.
In relation to premises, each hot food provider uses the premises they own – churches and church halls. The Community larder run by the ASRT operates from a mobile cabin leased at a low rent from the Baptist Church.
An initial start-up fund of £2,000 was offered by a local charity for rent, cupboards and other basic equipment for the Community Larder. A total of £8,000 was raised from a large local charity and national funding was secured to subsidise food and equipment costs of the hot food outlets. There are also donations of both cash and food.
The Friday Project received a total of £5,700 from national resources including a CUF Mustard Seed grant for IT equipment.
At present, there appears to be no major problem with funding, but some grant aid would lessen the strain on constituent members who have to call upon their own church resources to keep going. This applies to all facilities including the Community Larder. No charges are made for services currently, but this has been considered and is a live issue.
The non-financial support of the Diocese, other churches and some secular agencies is also essential. It is the essence of CHAT to be linked in to other organisations.
· Volunteers cover the 11 hot food outlets providing 4 Breakfasts, 1 Sunday Sandwich Lunch and 6 Evening meals.
· The Community Larder has 15 volunteers with 2 volunteers covering one hour each Tuesday.
· On Thursdays, a local adult group with educational needs cover the Larder. They have support from other volunteers if available, but otherwise they run the Larder themselves.
· The Friday project has a team of some 15 volunteers to meet the programmes as designed. It is held from 10am to 3.30 pm each week and plans are well advanced to commence a Thursday session.
At present, additional voluntary time is required to expand the Food outlets, but funding is also needed – small grants to maintain present services but plans are under discussion proposing the appointment of a social worker to support and develop facilities.
It is difficult to calculate the financial value of volunteer time (e.g. calculated on the basis of paying the minimum wage for the time contributed) because contingencies change, but at a calculated estimate it would be £4,000 to £5,000 each week. All hot food outlets remain open 52 weeks of the year, including all Bank Holidays and all over the two weeks of Christmas and the New Year.
CHAT has now been joined by another member church which runs a Debt Counselling service.
The continuity provided to the socially isolated, the homeless and those with addictive personalities or problems. The more the projects have built up relationships and trust with the client groups, the more we have seen the need to develop services to meet their needs. Often the approach is to deal with the presenting problem and not the cause. This is why the Friday project commenced. It was discovered that many of those attending the meals or larder could not cook or their self esteem had reached such a low point that it rendered them incapable of coping. The Friday and now the Thursday project set out to address this. Regular research is undertaken to assess progress and tease out needs which may be considered and practical action applied.
No barriers really except some initial scepticism and concern from some statutory agencies that developing our facilities might encourage immigration into Hereford and thus put pressure upon their overstretched services. However research has shown this is not so.
CHAT intends to develop strong Church-based co-ordinated services concerned with meeting the basic needs of individuals, but at the same time providing opportunities for them to get back into the mainstream of society by developing self confidence and self esteem.