They’ve suffered funding cuts, lost their home and been forced to limit their service. But the team behind Woolwich Service User Project — or WSUP — have kept going during the coronavirus crisis. Mark Osborn, one of its most dedicated volunteers, told SAM DAVIES how.
When Mark Osborn first came to WSUP around 2013, it was as a volunteer. But it was as valuable to him as anyone else. “I was in early recovery from drink and drugs,” he remembers. Having stopped using, he needed something to fill his time. He’d been advised to help out at WSUP, a shelter where homeless and vulnerable people can find food, clothes, showers and friends. “So I went along and really enjoyed it. Back in the early days most of the volunteers were in recovery from drink or drugs or both.”
The service began in 2010, initially funded by Greenwich Council, in a building on Anglesea Road in Woolwich. The letters stood for Weekend Service User Project, operating once a week, on Saturdays. As well as food, clients — or “service users” — could wash, get their hair cut, put their clothes through a washing machine, or get new ones if they needed them. Crucially, it was also a place for socialising, making friends and taking part in activities like karaoke.
About a year after Mark joined, WSUP was forced to close. As the Conservative government made cuts across the country, Greenwich Council withdrew its funding.
“When it was dying, we got some council people to come down,” Mark says. “They just wasn’t interested in keeping it going. They said it was just a piece of work that was now finished.”
Disheartened but not defeated, Mark and three other volunteers kept their resolve. “We didn’t feel that it was finished,” he says. It was obvious to him that society’s most vulnerable were still in need. “Where can they go, to get a shower?” he asks. “Where can they go and get their clothing washed? That’s what made us think ‘people need this’. I must admit it, to a point, I think I needed it.”
That was in March 2014. By October, they had raised enough money to reopen. They moved into Woolwich Central Baptist Church and began opening on Tuesdays as well as Saturdays, renaming themselves Woolwich Service User Project. Mark pronounces the abbreviation “wassup”.
On its first day of reopening about 15 people showed up. “Back in those days, we thought 15 people was busy,” Mark says. “Go forward a couple of years, and we’re getting up to 100 people use the project in one day.”
WSUP was registered as a charity in 2017. In 2019 it signed a lease to move into a new home, the derelict Brookhill Building, behind St Peter’s Church. Work began on renovation while the team continued to operate out of the Baptist Church. Then the pandemic hit.
Mark and his colleagues were forced to cut the number of volunteers from as many as 30 down to two or three. They had to stop service users coming into the building, instead offering food as a takeaway service.
Worried about different groups entering the building, the church told WSUP to be out by September. Mark was understanding, but with the new building still far from done, WSUP moved into a gazebo. Which is where it is now, still operating twice a week, but with Mark and his partner Gwen as the only volunteers. They have been able to pass clothing to service users over a one-metre barrier, as well as takeaway food. “But WSUP’s more than just takeaway food,” says Mark.
When the pandemic first hit England, 15,000 homeless people were moved into emergency accommodation as part of the Everyone In scheme. But Mark has seen people on the streets of Woolwich all year round. With WSUP no longer offering an inside space, as well as most libraries and churches being forced to close, the homeless are faced with few options. From the contact he’s had with them, Mark is worried.
“They say they don’t talk to anyone,” he says. “They would look forward to going to WSUP, sitting down, chatting to people, seeing what’s going on. And it’s just not there at the moment. This is not really WSUP.” The pain in his voice is clear. “It’s not the real WSUP.”
Many have asked Mark when things will go back to normal; he’s simply unable to answer. He hopes to offer some kind of indoor service in the coming weeks, but says the new building won’t be finished for months. Even when it is, it’s unclear if they will be able to run as normal.
Two of the charity’s top fundraising events, Plumstead Make Merry and WSUP’s annual sponsored sleep-out, have been cancelled this year due to the pandemic.
At the start of 2020, Mark had plans to expand WSUP. Once the new building was up and running, he wanted to install a heating system which would allow it to run as an overnight shelter in winter. “But it’s not looking hopeful for this year,” he says, noting that Greenwich Winter Night Shelter, the nearest alternative, is also unable to open, as are places offering similar services up and down the country.
For the past three years WSUP has opened on Christmas Day, offering a meal and company to those who need it at what can be an especially lonely time of year. This year, that won’t be possible. Meanwhile, poverty in the area is getting worse. Housing estates are being knocked down, affordable accommodation is fast disappearing. “Because of this pandemic, people losing their jobs,” adds Mark. “I think WSUP’s going to be be even busier going forward.”
Mark remains defiantly positive. “WSUP’s like a family,” he says. “We have a lot of fun down there, a lot of laughs, and we all miss it now.” He’s learned this year “to try and stay optimistic. You never know what’s round the corner. At one point I thought quite possibly that WSUP could close, but just when you started to lose a bit of heart…”
The new building is finally taking shape. It’s unclear how exactly, but WSUP looks set to live on, just.
To donate to WSUP, visit JustGiving.com.
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