For some of York’s most vulnerable people, the harvest season cannot come soon enough. GAVIN AITCHISON reports

IN the cellar store room, supplies are running low. Beans, corned beef, spam and tomatoes may make for a modest shopping list, but they’re the key foodstuffs here and the shelves are nearly empty.

It’s like this every September, it must be said. The vast majority of donations come through the autumn harvest appeals by schools and churches, and the remaining provisions always look meagre in the final weeks before that influx.

But times are tougher than they used to be. Staff can no longer bank on receiving a harvest large enough to last until the next and they have had to buy extra supplies in recent years to see them through.

Carecent, behind Central Methodist Church in St Saviourgate, has been providing breakfasts to homeless and disadvantaged people in York since 1984, currently serving about 30 a day, six days a week.

But few in the city realise quite how reliant the service is on harvest appeals. Each autumn, the centre collects hundreds of donated items, which are then arranged in date order and stacked on the shelves for the 12 months ahead. And each September, staff face an uncertain few weeks hoping and praying that the empty shelves will be replenished.

Alan Wright, Carecent co-ordinator, said: “For the past two or three years, the harvest has been less and less. We have had to put extra money in, which is not ideal. We spend about £60 a week on fresh things like bread, milk and spread, and we really need the money to cover that, rather than other items.

“I think to some degree, churches themselves are changing focus with their appeals, but also donors are feeling the pinch a bit. We have been particularly grateful for contributions from schools and on top of that, we have spoken in schools to children, which has worked very well indeed.”

Carecent – or “Carebears”, as it is affectionately known to many of its regulars – is staffed entirely by volunteers and provides a unique service in York, based upon what Mr Wright calls a “non-judgmental, open door policy”.

People are not allowed in with alcohol or if drunk, but if they are turned away it is only ever for that day. They are always welcomed back tomorrow if they comply with the no-alcohol rule, for a simple but nourishing breakfast, to pick up items such as toiletries, or to browse the second-hand clothes store.

“We provide a base level that people do not drop below,” says Mr Wright.

“If it was not there, then how far people may drop, we do not know. City of York Council and various agencies that work with homeless people have criteria and have to tick boxes for funding. But because we rely completely on donations, we can do what we believe is the right thing.

“You can be excluded from other agencies, but still get your breakfast from us, and people have a tremendous affection for that. People know they can still come here.”

Nicky Gladstone, newly-appointed project leader, says that approach reaps benefits.

She said: “People do not abuse that safety net. They know this is the limit they do not go below. People hold to that and are protective of the volunteers. It is terribly regrettable that we need to be there – but as long as there is a need, we will be.”

‘People should realise what they do’

Cavan Lund, 20, has been coming to Carecent for about two years, on the recommendation of a friend.

He is from York, but lived in Bradford for some years before returning, and is now living at the Arc Light Hostel while looking for work. Cavan said: “This is a good place to come to get your fill. I try to come here most days. It’s great here, and I think if there were not something like this, then 30 to 40 people would have nowhere to go.

“It’s not just about the food – it’s about the social aspect as well – people eating together and being here together. What they do here is a really good thing, and they do it out of the goodness of their own hearts. People should realise what they do.”

How you can help

As well as receiving donations via churches and schools, Carecent will be open to receive direct donations from 6pm to 8pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, from September 24 to October 16.

What's needed

CARECENT particularly requests:

• Tinned meat that can be served cold, eg spam, corned beef, ham, canned hot-dog sausages

• Sugar

• Cereals (other than cornflakes, Weetabix and instant porridge such as Ready Brek)

• Porridge oats

• Tinned tomatoes without herbs and additions (preferably whole, not chopped)

• Baked beans without added items

• Tinned spaghetti

• Biscuits

• Coffee

• Socks, hats, gloves, jeans, roll-on deodorant (no aerosols), toothpaste, shower gel, shampoo (preferably in small sizes).

The public’s generosity in previous years means certain items are not currently needed: eg tea, salt, jam, marmalade and other spreads for bread, soup, cornflakes.

Because Carecent serves breakfasts only, they struggle to use non-breakfast foods such as pasta, rice, cooking sauces and fresh vegetables.