Feature: Sunday evening on the Chocolate Run

By Perdi Harris

AN evening at the Chocolate Run’s weekly drop-in sees volunteers provide hot drinks and snacks for the homeless of Harlow. Across the room, an elderly man has fallen asleep in an armchair. He has walked sixchoco miles from Hoddesdon in the cold and rain, just for a cup of tea and a cake.

The facilities are basic, but the atmosphere is warm and friendly. Baskets of bread and baked goodies are laid out across the tables, all of which has been donated. Dara Olcan is one of the team on duty this evening and has brought home-made soup and cupcakes along for the guests.

The charity gained its name when it was initially set up as a service that delivered hot chocolate to the homeless in central London. Now based at the Playbarn, at the Great Parndon Community Association, the charity reaches out to anyone in the area who is without a home, or who is struggling with financial hardship. Two hours spent at The Chocolate Run reveal that this encompasses a wide range of people, young or old and from all kinds of different backgrounds.

Homelessness is an ongoing and serious issue in the UK. A Sheffield University report in 2011 revealed the shocking statistic that the average life expectancy for a homeless person is 47 years old. With the ever increasing cost of living and a shortage of available council housing, it seems that more and more people may find themselves needing to rely on the services of homelessness charities.

Neil Hopkins, another of the volunteers, is keen to see an end to the need for these charities altogether. He said: “The best thing that could happen to us is that we are put out of business, that we become unnecessary. Every homeless charity in effect, aspires to its extinction.”

Mandy and Tony are two of the guests at the drop-in. Mandy, 53, was awarded council housing after her husband broke his back, but with limited tenancy rights. As a single man however, Tony, 46, is not classified as in ‘priority need’. Despite the fact that he does not currently have a roof over his head, the council have no legal responsibility to house him. It’s friends like Mandy allowing him to ‘sofa surf’ that make sure he’s not left out on the streets.

Aside from setting up the Sunday drop-in service in June of this year, the charity already has a well-established reputation as provider of the Christmas Haven. The Haven has been running for the last 17 years and is a round the clock operation, staffed by volunteers who give up their time over Christmas to provide respite for people who have nowhere to turn during the festive period. The Haven opens its doors from December 23rd to January 1st each year and offers food, clothing and accommodation to its guests.

Neil said: “We’ll probably have a hundred people plus for the Christmas one. There’s a big groundswell. I’m impressed with the people in Harlow and how they get stuck in.

“Last year we had some fascinating people – one woman who works for EasyJet, it was her one day off in her whole holiday period and she came and did a shift in here [the Haven]. It’s heartening, but it’s necessary as well.”

As the session draws to a close, the team pack bread and other snacks into carrier bags for the guests to take away with them and exchanges of ‘see you at Christmas’ echo across the dark car park. Whilst the charity hopes to one day become redundant, it’s comforting to know that until that time comes, there will always be a Haven waiting for Harlow’s homeless at Christmas.

The drop-in runs 6-8pm every Sunday. For more information about volunteering with The Chocolate Run and the work the charity does, visit www.chocolaterun.org.uk.

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