With winter still here and a council consultation on the future of homelessness services in the borough due to end on March 7, the issue of begging and rough-sleeping is making for a passionate debate in Chester.

Reporter Steve Cresswell joined Adam Dandy and volunteers from his ShareShop to deliver food and provisions to people on the city streets...

A STONE’S throw from a gleaming blue Bentley sits a man, blanket pulled up under his chin, staring at the ground.

He’s trembling and ashen-faced. I’m not sure if he notices us approach, or hears the footsteps and laughter of revellers tottering by on their night out.

There couldn’t be a starker picture of the rich-poor divide in our city – a man living on the streets next to a £100,000 luxury car.

Adam Dandy (centre) with ShareShop volunteers Paola Cecchini (left) and Anna Corbetta

Adam Dandy, the businessman behind Chester’s ShareShop, hands him a flask of warm chilli and a sandwich.

The man tells us he’s 47 years old and has a liver complaint. He looks at least 20 years older. Adam asks him if he’d like us to take him to a safe seat at the homeless facility at Richmond Court.

For me this is clearly where he needs to be – either there or in hospital – but he says he’d rather be left where he is. We give him an extra blanket and more food and move on.

“It’s heartbreaking,” says Adam later on. “I honestly don’t know what the solution is.”

In the two hours I spent with Adam and five of his volunteers on a relatively mild Tuesday evening, this was the first person we’d found bedded down for the night.

However, at least half a dozen more indicated they planned to sleep outside, either on the Rows, in Grosvenor Park or in a tent somewhere.

Recent national statistics have suggested there are just seven rough sleepers in Cheshire West and Chester, but Adam has clear views on this.

“It’s a joke, isn’t it? Look at this man here,” he says, pointing to an individual who has approached the ShareShop van asking if there are any spare pairs of socks. “He’s got a roll mat with him. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a flat in the city to go back to. There are many more like him.”

Homelessness is an emotive subject in Chester, and different agencies appear to have different stances on how best to deal with the issues of rough sleeping and begging.

The police have stated in no uncertain terms that beggars are often not homeless, and come to the city in order to make money. Unconfirmed reports have suggested that some can make up to £300 a day on Race Days.

The Mayor of Liverpool, Joe Anderson, recently announced a crackdown on professional beggars, saying scores of people regularly travelled to his city to beg for money on the streets.

Foundation Enterprises North West (FENW) – which runs Richmond Court and is Cheshire West and Chester Council’s (CWaC) current commissioned provider of homeless services – has a similar view.

While applauding the compassion of people who dedicate their time to handing out food, drinks and clothing to people, FENW says this can actually have the effect of perpetuating homelessness.

Its managers say their focus is on taking people off the streets and giving them access to professional services, including medical and housing.

This approach and tough stance on begging has sparked a backlash from some quarters in the city, with some saying it “demonises the homeless”.

Adam tells me that in the two months since the ShareShop van has been on the road, it has become obvious that the majority of people using it are in need of support, even if they happen to have a roof for the night and are not technically classed as rough sleepers.

“We accept that some people do take advantage but I’d say they are a minority,” he says. “Our ethos is that if we didn’t do what we do because of the minority then all those people who do need help would miss out.

“Our aim is to persuade them to go in [to Richmond Court’s safe seats] but if they point blank refuse, which they do nine times out of 10, then we will give them what they need to stay warm.”

During the course of the evening we hand out food, toiletries, blankets and clothing to about 15 people. The majority – about 10 – were waiting for us at The Cross in the city centre.

At one point, an argument between a young woman and a man threatens to end in violence, but Adam and the volunteers manage to calm the situation.

Nevertheless, this could be seen as evidence that police are right to have concerns about anti-social behaviour when vulnerable individuals are encouraged to congregate.

ShareShop, based on Northgate Street, hit the headlines in October last year when police shut down the cafe element of the service due to anti-social behaviour it was seemingly attracting to the city centre.

That was when Adam decided to crowd-fund for money to buy a van, and raised £10,500 in just three weeks.

The team – which includes local helpers and volunteers from Save the Family in Waverton, who prepare the food and drinks – hits the city’s streets every Tuesday and Thursday.

The ShareShop is open every day and people can donate clothing, sleeping bags and toiletries, or pre-pay for refreshments that homeless people can later claim.

Cash raised goes towards helping refugees, and will also help pay for a house for homeless people in Chester.

Adam tells me they have raised about £32,000 and he has his eye on a property that could accommodate three people. The idea is that they then work in the ShareShop, receive a reference, and then go on to secure full-time employment.

He is reluctant to pinpoint the location of the house, but says it is clear the police would prefer homeless accommodation to be out of the city centre.

He also believes that a larger number of smaller properties scattered around the city would be preferable to having larger single units, where peer pressure means there is more temptation to relapse into old ways.

One young woman who approaches the van for a sandwich tells us that she avoids Richmond Court because it means sleeping in a room with predominantly men, and she doesn’t feel safe. Another man says he once had his belongings stolen and will never go back.

As we move around the city centre – to the station, castle area, and back to the Cross – others say they tried to secure a safe seat but were turned away because all 10 spots were taken.

“While people continue to be turned away from the overnight shelter for whatever reason, we will continue to support them as best we can,” says Adam.

I later put these anecdotes to FENW’s outreach manager John Marsland who said: “We have two rooms which are utilised by safe seat customers, and would always consider the make-up of those presenting; often placing women in one room and males in the second. It would only be in exceptional circumstances that both male and females would be placed in the same room.”

He added: “All areas utilised by safe seat customers have continuous CCTV recording to safeguard customers and their possessions. This would obviously not include showers and toilet.

“We do have secure areas where people can and do leave possessions, we also regularly have possessions left by individuals who no longer access services.”

Mr Marsland stressed that temporary accommodation is always sought for vulnerable people who arrive at Richmond Court to find the safe seats are full, regardless of whether Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP) is in effect.

“Individuals not locally connected to CWAC are still entitled to access our service for up to 30 nights and we are able to provide the funding and resources for people to return home,” he said.

“Those assessed and validated as fleeing any type of violence or whose wellbeing is at risk are entitled to remain in the authority area and can access core beds.”

He also reiterated FENW’s belief that giving out food or sleeping bags is “contrary” to its contract with Cheshire West and Chester Council and is “massively discouraged within the professional sector”.

He added: “The aim of the new approach to homelessness is for individuals to be brought in to access professional services rather than maintaining or encouraging street-based lifestyles. This has considerable inherent risks to an individual’s health and wellbeing.”

Several days after I joined Adam and the ShareShop volunteers, this newspaper received a letter from John Cheek, one of Chester’s street pastors who help vulnerable people after dark. He praised the good work of FENW but also questioned the policy of equating homelessness only with rough-sleeping.

He said that in his experience there are many who may not be categorised as rough-sleepers, but have an “uncertain future of ‘sofa-surfing’, night after night, in the homes of friends and strangers”.

“Let’s not be lured into complacency, when it comes to homelessness,” he wrote. “The authorities may be getting on top of rough-sleeping, but the many needs of those who are still homeless remain and cannot be ignored.”

Having been out with both the FENW outreach team and ShareShop, and having heard from street pastors and anecdotes of the good work carried out by Chester Aid to the Homeless (CATH), one thing is very clear to me: everyone shares the same passion and single goal which is to improve the lives of the city’s homeless people.

Whatever the outcome of the council’s consultation on homelessness in the borough, I can’t see this ever changing.

l The consultation is due to end on March 7. For more information, and to have your say, visit www.cheshirewest andchester.gov.uk