9 May 2023

They say that not all heroes wear capes and the theory certainly rings true for the dedicated team at Routes to Roots – which has been named as the Homelessness Partnership BCP’s ‘Hero of the Month’ for May.

The Poole-based charity, which was presented with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in 2022, has been supporting people experiencing homelessness for 20 years, providing life’s essentials such as hot showers, laundry facilities, clothing and hot meals.

Last year, Routes to Roots saw its long-term vision become reality with the opening of the Genesis Centre, a former Baptist Church in the heart of Poole that dates back to 1815.

The building, purchased in 2019 with funds raised via grants and from the Talbot Village Trust, opened its doors in March 2022, having been transformed into a dedicated ‘one-stop place for change’ to help people with nowhere to call home, while preserving the unique character and history of the former place of worship.

Routes to Roots’ Genesis Centre is born

The opening of the Genesis Centre couldn’t have come at a more critical time. Centre Manager Ben Sargent, the only frontline member of staff, says the cost-of-living crisis is generating unprecedented demand for the charity’s services. With energy prices rocketing, around £80,000 had to be raised to run the Genesis Centre in its first year alone.

Ben says: “When Routes to Roots was previously based at Skinner Street United Reformed Church we were serving 20 to 25 people maximum, but there have been periods over the last few months where we’ve been serving up to 45 lunches on a daily basis at the Genesis Centre.

“We’re seeing people who are being evicted from their accommodation because they can no longer afford their rent, primarily from the private rented sector.”

The Genesis Centre displays the Homelessness Partnership BCP’s Let’s Talk Renting posters and information leaflets (visit www.bit.ly/ltr2023) which signpost private tenants in rent arrears or facing eviction to trained experts who can support and advise.

And while people in need turn up daily for hot meals, catering is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the work the charity carries out, backed by a reserve pool of up to 45 volunteers.

Helping anyone in crisis

Ben, who gained a decade of experience working in drug and alcohol services before working for Poole Housing Partnership and later for Routes to Roots, adds: “We provide free lunches from Monday to Friday on a drop-in basis for anyone who needs us, whether they’re rough sleeping or struggling financially, have mental or physical health issues or need drug and alcohol support. Anyone is welcome. Just walk through the door.

“The Genesis Centre provides showers, access to washing machines and tumble driers for those who are homeless, as well as a breakfast on Monday and Friday mornings. We have computers where volunteers assist with forms, benefit claims and CVs on Wednesday mornings, and there’s a women’s group on Thursday mornings.”

In the spirit of partnership working, external agencies have a visible presence at the Genesis Centre. Ben explains: “We have visible outreach workers from St Mungo’s at breakfasts while drug and alcohol services from We Are With You are on site two or three times a week.

“A needle exchange takes place once a week. We have council housing officers in once a month while Shelter and The Big Issue have been regular attendees.”

Transforming the former Hill Street Baptist Church

The historic Genesis Centre has been designed as a welcoming space. When Covid hit in 2020, local architect Ken Morgan generously gave his time for free to mastermind the refurbishment of the building.

The organ, although no longer functional, has been retained while pews provide seating and a gallery houses donated clothing and toiletries. The former Baptistry is now an informal consultation space. Stained glass windows have been restored in accordance with the church’s listed status and a new kitchen has been installed.

Ben adds: “There’s no doubt that people are struggling financially on a day-to-day basis. To be in a position to cater for people’s core needs at the Genesis Centre, such as providing free food, is invaluable at this time. The impact and stress of the rising cost of living is taking its toll on people. It takes courage to walk through doors of a soup kitchen or day centre like ours and there are a lot of barriers that can prevent people from asking for help.

“People coming here tend to be in a desperate situation. We make sure the centre is a welcoming, friendly, warm environment where we can determine what support can be offered.”

Building for the Future

Routes to Roots is keen to develop a hall at the rear of the former church, currently used for storage, and has already raised £15,000 toward its goal. The extra space will provide the charity with facilities to host workshops and events to benefit its client community.

“The hall has enormous potential,” Ben says. “We are looking forward to the next chapter, which includes more opportunities in the new space.”

Ben has a final message to anyone who is struggling: “Charities such as ourselves and other agencies in the Homelessness Partnership BCP are here to offer support.

Please don’t feel isolated – if you’re in need we will welcome you. We are a friendly community and the peer support and positive relationships built here are vital to what we offer. You can’t put a value on that.”

Visit www.routestoroots.org to find out more.