Fresh start volunteers pack a punch in turning houses into homes

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THE reasons for Borderers finding themselves homeless are many and varied.

Marriages and relationships fail, people flee domestic abuse, young people can no longer live in the family home and landlords may end private tenancies.

Whatever the circumstances, Scottish Borders Council’s homelessness service receives over 1,000 applications a year and the number continues the rise.

In 2008, a group from the Selkirk Council of Churches, representing all denominations attended a talk by a member of the Scottish Churches Housing Action Group.

They heard of a number of ecumenical initiatives in Scotland’s cities to assist people moving out of homelessness into a permanent tenancy by providing them with a starter pack of essential items to turn an empty house into a home.

In Selkirk, the idea took root and later that year Fresh Start Borders (FSB) was formed. By January of this year, it had given out, free, 215 packs, comprising fresh bedding, towels, crockery, kitchen utensils, bathroom equipment and small electrical items, to needy homeless people and families throughout the region.

Still based in Selkirk, the charity, bolstered by a recent grant from Children in Need, is seeking to expand its operations by signing up more volunteers, holding more fundraisers and setting up collection points in other Borders towns.

“The demand has far exceeded our expectations so there has been some pressure on our small group to supply packs to these vulnerable people,” explained FSB chairman Richard Kightley. “We have thus been very grateful to our very committed volunteers and the support we receive from other organisations, including Home Basics, who help us with distribution.

“However, to sustain the number of packs we are able to provide, regular donations of goods and money are needed along with more volunteers. In the future, a group based in another part of the Borders would be ideal.

“Sadly the number of homeless people and families in the Borders is increasing so the starter packs are a way everyone can help to make a difference to people’s lives.”

The project is based at a unit at Shepherd’s Mill in Selkirk, thanks to the generosity of two members of the town’s Baptist Church David and Meriel Anderson. The depot becomes a hive of activity every Wednesday morning as packs are prepared for new clients, who are referred to FSB by SBC’s homelessness service or local housing associations.

Other referrals come from organisations such as churches, Women’s Aid, Penumbra, NHS Borders (via health visitors) and mental health charities.

Bolstered by a start-up grant of £6,000 from the lottery’s Awards for All, FSB appears to have captured the public imagination.

Last year, it was “adopted” by a group of students from the Heriot-Watt campus in Galashiels who raised funds through various activities and donated over £500.

It was also accorded “charity of the year” status by Selkirk Rotary Club which gave two large donations and arranged a house-to-house collection of goods in the Selkirk area. Donations have also been forthcoming from churches in Melrose, Kelso, St Boswells and Lauder.

“A considerable amount of our pack items have to be purchased as new, so our financial stability is all-important,” said Richard. “However, people can help in several ways, such as donating good quality, surplus second-hand goods or adding some of our starter pack items to their monthly shopping list.

“Obviously, money to buy new items is welcome and there is always a need for more voluteers at our collection centre in Selkirk.

“Our objective is to continue to make these packs available for all low-income Borderers who have been homeless and are unable to provide these items for themselves.

“We have a relatively small group of volunteers who are happy they have been able to help so many people and we are grateful for all the support we have received, if somewhat daunted by the enormity of the challenge.

“However, we are all very optimistic that with further offers of help and donations, we can continue to make a difference.”

For more information about Fresh Start Borders, call 01750 20676, email or visit the website.