HOMELESSNESS: The Canterbury pub fighting rough sleeping

Image courtesy of: The Drapers Arms Canterbury

InQuire met with Johnny Woodger, manager of the Drapers’ Arms, to talk about his and the pub’s involvement with helping people in Canterbury and in Kent.

The Drapers’ Arms was one of the pubs which turned its shopfront purple, Porchlight’s signature colour, on World Homelessness Day to raise awareness.

At just 30- years-old, Johnny is eager to do his part to help with the situation. He was wearing Porchlight’s purple t-shirt when we met, and so was the rest of the staff working that morning. Next to the register, at the bar, leaflets explaining Porchlight’s work were available and a donation tin was placed there as well.

Having experienced a precarious situation when he was younger, Johnny told us he now wants to give back and help people in the way Porchlight has helped him.

“It’s very humbling to be part of things like these, to kind of give back. Now I am in a position where I manage two restaurants, we’ve got space here, we can host events for Porchlight and help them.”

As a business owner who has gone through difficult situations before, Johnny insisted on his luck and on the fact that his experience was only one example. To him, the spotlight should be on the larger problem of homelessness.

“I'm very keen to be careful to say that I was very lucky in my situation. Although I was unlucky in the one sense, it could have been a hell of a lot worse for me, and I’m grateful that I didn’t have to sleep rough or deal with any abusive situation.

“I didn’t really want to make it all about me or my story as such. Because I don’t let it define me, I don’t really see it as a big thing. The important thing is the awareness being raised for the charity.”

After staying at a friend’s’ house for a few months following complicated personal circumstances, Johnny’s school was made aware of the situation and put him in touch with Porchlight.

He sounded thankful for Porchlight’s involvement with his problem, but the underlying point of our discussion was that human presence could be twice as important as material financial help.

“You can be quite lonely in these situations, so you tend to stick together quite a bit. I’m really grateful for my friend Jason’s support outside of the support Porchlight provided with weekly meetings, care work and those sorts of generic support systems. Being provided with a safe space, that was all I needed as a person,” Johnny stated.

As the discussion progressed around homelessness today, we talked more about the stereotypes regarding drug and alcohol abuse in the community. Johnny highlighted how easy it is to fall into these toxic patterns, especially with the mental health issues that come with being in such a precarious situation.

While drugs and alcohol are a big problem in the community, Johnny was adamant to tell us that it was not the only problem. To him, misconceptions around drugs in the homeless community are common.

“It’s important to speak to people, you can’t tarnish everybody with the same brush. There’s both sides to it.”

An aspect of Porchlight’s work that we talked about is the number of people living in precarious situations without rough sleeping.

As Woodger pointed out: “Yes, there are 400 homeless people in Kent at the moment, but there’s also the 250 living on sofas and getting by, but not really, not thriving.”

The question of housing was also raised. In his opinion, real estate developers should be doing more to provide social centres and social housing.

“Canterbury is seen as this nice, beautiful, affluent city. The reality is not quite that. Instead of providing however many family homes and student houses, if 1% of that was dedicated to another social housing situation, then it would be such a boost in the city.”

The conversation shifted to the topic of community support and decreasing solidarity. He told us this phenomenon makes rough-sleepers even more invisible to the public eye, and the drive to help them less frequently.

“I think that people aren’t as supportive as they used to be. There’s less community spirit now. Things like the purple day for Porchlight and events like that are few and far between, there’s not much else going on. I don’t know if it’s part of the social media age where you can, on your birthday, ask for a donation to appear charitable, pretend like you really supported something.”

On that topic, Johnny mentioned the fundraiser that the Drapers’ Arms held last Christmas for the charity Catching Lives. During Christmas meals, the pub added a £1 discretionary donation to the bill for Catching Lives – they only raised £180 at the Drapers’ Arms, and he was shocked by the number of people who blatantly refused to donate.

As our conversation drew to a close, we asked Johnny if he thought it was harder to be in a situation of homelessness now than it was a few decades ago.

“I think it’s way different now, generations become more connected and less connected at the same time. It’s a tough world out there, and there’s a lot more uncertainty. It feels like it’s a growing problem.”