Those are the words that Tim Compton greeted me with when I went to see him recently at the Shrewsbury Ark. ‘Beggars can't be choosers - I hate that phrase,’ he said. ‘Why can’t people have choices just because they’ve hit hard times?’
The Shrewsbury Ark has had a lot of publicity over the last few days. On Saturday the Big Busk took place on the birthday of Ben Bebbington, a Shrewsbury busker who was killed last year. Ben spent a great deal of time in the Ark. It was a place where he could write poetry, be helped in getting it published, paint, hang out and feel at home. Everybody at the Ark was devastated to hear of his death, and the money raised by the Big Busk will be well used in Ben’s memory.
But then, at the Shrewsbury Ark every donation gets well used. When I went to see Tim, every available space was piled high with bags of clothes. Once they’d been sorted, some would go directly to the Ark’s clients and others would be sold or recycled, bringing in an income. There were no donations like these that couldn’t be used.
Have you been past the Shrewsbury Ark? Do you know the place I’m talking about? Down at the station, it’s on the left hand side of the road just before the railway bridge - a curtained shop-front type window with a painted rainbow over the front door. Its name’s suggests it’s a place of shelter, but probably like me you’ll have little idea what goes on behind that front door. That’s why I went to see Tim Compton – to find out.
For many in our town, the Shrewsbury Ark is a lifeline. For some it’s nothing less than an adoptive family. For others it’s somewhere to turn to when the wheels of life start coming off. ‘In many respects,’ said Tim Compton, ‘the Ark is like a local without the alcohol. Some people pass through and that’s fine; you’re pleased to have met them and been able to help. But others hang out. The Ark has its regulars – and Ben Bebbington was one of those. He always had a smile and a friendly word.’
Happy Days was Ben’s catchphrase, and Happy Days in Shrewsbury was the byline for last Saturday’s Big Busk. ‘It was an amazing day,’ said Ben’s sister, Karen Higgins. ‘People walked around smiling and greeting each other, and Ben’s mum was able to take comfort from the warmth and compassion overflowing through the streets. There can never be words to explain how grateful we are to everyone who gave their time, whether to perform or volunteer. The hope had been to fill the town with music, bring people in, support local businesses and raise awareness – and funds – for the Shrewsbury Ark. All of that was achieved, and so much more.’
So, what’s the history of this remarkable little Ark down by the railway station? When I asked Tim, he said that work with the town’s homeless began in the 1970s with the Christian Centre, which was initially based in Old St Chad's. This was not a good venue as there was no power, light, heat or running water. Accommodation in the Old School House down at the Welsh Bridge became available later, and the work moved to 70 Castle Foregate in around 1997. However, in 2006 government funding dried up and this night shelter had to be closed.
Aware of the need to make for provision for rough sleepers and others, Shrewsbury & Atcham Borough Council bought the building that now houses the Ark for the use of the Christian Centre Association, which runs the Ark and pays the Council rent. The Ark opened in March 2008. Eighteen months later its Manager, Phil Griffiths, moved on and Tim Compton took his place. With a background working in supported housing for the homeless and those with mental health issues, he was the right man for the job.
‘Funnily enough, I wasn’t looking for a job,’ said Tim. ‘But this one came along and it was perfect for me. It ticked all the boxes. Not you understand that I’m a box-ticking type.’
Tim definitely didn’t come across as the box-ticking type. More the passionate and lively type, I’d have said, hard-headed about human nature one minute, jumping to his feet the next to showcase something he felt that I should see. In the corner, we found one of Ben’s paintings, and he dug it out. As we talked, he left his desk and started showing me around. For a small building, I discovered the Ark to be packed full of amenities. Showers, a laundry, a couple of sitting rooms, a clothes bank, a food bank, a kitchen, computers, a designated phone line for clients’ medical/social/benefits/housing etc use, a smokers’ area outside with tables and chairs, a lift for wheel-chair users [which had only been used so far for moving heavy goods] – like the Biblical Ark with its animals, it was amazing how much Shrewsbury’s little Ark had packed in.
In the kitchen, Deputy Manager, Amy Parkes was cooking lunch and a volunteer was collecting a client’s medication, which the Ark had responsibility for administering. With only three full-time staff, the Ark was largely dependent on volunteers. Some of them came in five days a week. Some only came for half a day, but all of them made a difference.
‘Primarily their job is to talk to clients and make them welcome,’ said Tim. ‘When I first came here, I could see that we needed to raise the level of engagement with individuals. There’s now a strong emphasis on welcoming. We act as hosts. This is a very important role. People aren’t just left to their own devices when they come through the door. We aim to establish a dialogue in order to try to meet their needs.’
The Ark isn’t just a place for boiling up a kettle for a brew or jumping in the shower. It’s a place for human interaction, where staff and volunteers care about what happens to the people who come through the door, and will take time to show that care. They’re not naïve about human nature – they’re aware that the picture people present may need exploring, and that offering help won’t always be straightforward. But they’ll do what they can.
What was the worst thing about working at the Ark, I asked Tim. The frustration at not always being able to change things, he replied. Sometimes you wanted to be able to wave a magic wand and make everything all right. Bureaucracy was frustrating. He understood the processes that local government, say, or the Department of Works & Pensions insisted on going through. But it was frustrating to keep crashing into barriers and in the face of them to feel so powerless.
And the good things, I asked. When an individual you’d worked hard with achieved what they’d been striving for, that was pretty good, Tim replied. ‘We’ve had a number of cases where people have looked back and said I can’t believe I am where I am today. It’s great to see a former rough sleeper with only a car for a roof over his head coming back from his first day in a proper job. Great to visit a client in their first home, and them being the one to offer the cup of coffee.’
The Ark will provide a postal address to enable a homeless person to become eligible for a job. They’ll provide clothes for an interview and shower facilities for sprucing up. They’ll visit people in hospital. They’ve even been known to find a home for the occasional dog.
On one memorable occasion, Tim was asked to be an ex-client’s best man. He agreed on conditions. ‘No Amsterdam stag do,’ he said. ‘No stripping anybody and tying them to lamp posts. But, yes, apart from that.’ In fact he ended up being chauffeur, photographer and master of ceremonies - and since then has become godfather to the man’s daughter. ‘It was a privilege,’ he said.
Did the Ark attract trouble, I wanted to know. Not often, Tim replied. There was the odd bit of attitude if people didn’t get what they wanted. However it was rare for anyone to really kick off. ‘Generally speaking, the Ark is a respectful environment,’ he said.
In 2010 Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, visited the Shrewsbury Ark. Some regulars couldn’t believe that a man like him [‘I mean, he’s friends with the Queen’] was really going to visit them. The occasion was memorable, not least because the Archbishop wasn’t to be rushed. Plainly he had a busy schedule but he refused to allow himself to be moved on, took his time and made sure he talked to everybody. When he left, he went round saying goodbye, and remembered everybody’s name. People were important - and important as individuals - and he made that plain.
Tim picked on that again when I asked about volunteers. What qualities did they need to have, I wanted to know. ‘They need to be people,’ was his reply. ‘Plain and simple.’ No more than that.
And, looking to the future, how would Tim like to see the work of the Shrewsbury Ark developing? I asked the question and immediately he answered with the need in Shrewsbury for a night shelter. Working with the Statutory Authorities’ task force to keep rough sleepers to the minimum, Tim’s aware that identifying individuals in need and providing appropriate intervention can be more complicated than it sounds.
‘I’d like to do more,’ he said. ‘Homeless people shouldn’t have to go all the way to Telford for a bed for the night.’ But he’d also like to take the work of the Ark out of its building and extend it county-wide. ‘There’s a real need right across Shropshire,’ he said. ‘And I’d also like it if the Ark could provide support outside its current hours of 9.00am-4.30pm, five days a week. But in order to do that, we’d need more staff and volunteers.’
Back to that again. You can’t talk about the Ark without the subject of volunteers cropping up. Tim is deeply grateful for the Ark’s many volunteers, but says that they could do with more. ‘All people have to do is get in touch,’ Tim said. ‘It’s as easy as going on the website or picking up the phone.’ Holding fund raising events, donating clothes [‘though we do ask people to ring first’], sorting out clothes [the bags tucked away in every available spare corner attest to how badly volunteers are needed for this], even providing food, including cooked lunches – all of this is helpful.
The Ark provides a cooked lunch every day. Several times a week these are brought in by people who’ve volunteered to cook. Whatever food comes in is shared amongst whoever’s there. And it’s not just lunches that make a difference, but cakes and biscuits too, providing warmth, a welcome and a bit of comfort in often chaotic lives.
It was time to leave. ‘Is there anything you’d like to tell people?’ I asked Tim. ‘Anything we haven’t covered that you want them to know?’ ‘I want people to know how very much they’ve got in life,’ Tim said. ‘And I’d like them to think before judging, and to not make assumptions based on appearance and manner. A person in need is as human as anybody else, and requires respect. I remember once somebody saying why do so many homeless people have dogs? Well, why does anybody have a dog? For company, security, friendship. Homeless people are no different to anybody else.’
Interested in becoming a Shrewsbury Ark volunteer? Here's the link: