12 April 2023

In Touch Christian Mission, based at Lansdowne Church in Bournemouth, has been named as the Homelessness Partnership BCP’s ‘Hero of the Month’ for April.

For people experiencing crisis or rough sleeping, the opportunity to dine out in the heart of Bournemouth can be little more than a pipe dream. But thanks to the dedication of local volunteers and businesses, one service is bringing those in need together through a shared passion for food, hope and community spirit.

People serving hot food at the In Touch Christian Mission

The mission first opened its doors more than 20 years ago as a soup kitchen and has evolved into a thriving community hub.

Serving hot meals to anyone experiencing crisis every Tuesday and Friday lunchtimes, In Touch also provides toiletries, clothing and professional support for guests – along with medical support, housing, finance and safety advice.

Demand for the service has rocketed due to the tough economic climate. “When we came out of Covid, we were seeing around 35 guests but now we regularly have 65 to 70,” says In Touch Team Leader Ellen McGinn.

“In Touch is not just for people who are rough sleeping. Anyone in need can come for a hot meal. Folk are struggling with the cost of living and, as a result, we’re seeing people who we haven’t seen for a few years.”

A unique dining experience

One of the few community kitchens to operate during daytimes, In Touch aims to provide guests with a two-course, restaurant-style service. “It’s a soup kitchen on steroids!” says Ellen.

“We aim to provide the best experience for guests, provided by a team of up to 10 people. The back-of-house team manages food preparation, cooking and serving while the front-of-house team lay tables, prepare the room and get second-hand clothes and toiletries out for guests, before the meal is served waiter-style.”

The service has affectionately become known as the “chicken run” thanks to a partnership with Nando’s which donates chicken for the meals, with Ellen having earned the nickname of Mrs Chicken for her efforts!

She adds: “We have been able to do this due to the generosity and kindness of the community. The church provides us with a wonderful premises and members have been incredibly generous and supported us over the years.

“Friends and family of our team donate when they can, and we have a partnership with a local One Stop shop which collects for us.”

Winning trust step-by-step

In Touch caters for a diverse range of people who find themselves experiencing crisis. Ellen explains: “People come to us from the care sector, while those who call volunteers ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ are often straight out of a prison setting.

“We see people who are going through financial breakdown having lost their job and find themselves on the street. Relationship breakdowns can quickly result in people rough sleeping. Our biggest desire is to help people to come off the streets.

“Guests often come individually to our doors but groups form and we see people gravitate to their normal table and known group. It has become clear over the years that it takes a long time to build trust with people.

“Trust is hard to win and easily lost. That’s why we try to remember people’s names and their stories. Good stories are few and far between and we hear about lots of sad experiences but we have to hang on to the good stories,” Ellen says.

Sowing the seeds of recovery

With the economic crisis taking its toll on people across the BCP area, the signposting element of In Touch is throwing a lifeline to those with nowhere else to turn for help.

Claire Holly from Faithworks regularly attends to support guests, armed with a laptop, phone and a wealth of contacts to set people on their first steps to recovery from homelessness, whether it’s putting those in need in touch with a housing officer, St Mungo’s, helping them to book a doctor’s appointment or applying for Universal Credit.

Ellen adds: “Signposting is one of the best aspects of In Touch. Having St Mungo’s here provides an immediate link from guest to professional.

“We are, however, dealing with guests in some very challenging situations. We’re seeing more addiction problems and an increasing number of people who have become hardened to rough sleeping, with huge mental health problems.”

She sums-up: “When I took over I was told to dream big for In Touch and it worked. We had a trial of pop-up medical health clinics run by Dorset Health Care and we now have funding for the clinics to continue, something that we’ve had to wait a long time to come to fruition.

“If we could get a mental health practitioner in as well, that would be fantastic, because our role is to be that friend to someone who has no-one else to talk to.”

In Touch’s drive to signpost guests to support services is backed by professionals from Faithworks, St Mungo’s and BCP Council’s rough sleeping team, while Teen Challenge helps guests to address addiction issues.

“Rooted in the Christian faith, a Bible reading is heard at the start of each session, while the warm, caring environment encourages conversations that help to earn guests’ trust and respect – building hope for a better future.

Please visit www.lansdownechurch.uk/community-1 to find out more.