“This room saved me.” How a Community Came Together to Help Residents Facing Homelessness – With Outcomes Nobody Ever Imagined

When Gillian Parris posted a request on Facebook for donations to turn a disused space into a Family Room, she never imagined the response she would get – or the far-reaching impact the room would have. But let’s start at the beginning …

During the summer, Gillian began her new role as an Orchard and Shipman Accommodation Manager at a residence provided by the local authority, as short-term accommodation for local people facing homelessness. As she was given an induction tour of the building, she noticed a large empty room. It was known as ‘The Family Room’ but the only toys were one broken rocking horse and a bookshelf with a handful of tattered children’s books on it. Gillian saw the potential the room had for being a place that parents could bring their children but knew funding was limited so she posted a request for donations of toys onto the Orpington Gossip group on Facebook. She never could have predicted the events this would set in motion.

The following week, Gillian was inundated with offers of toys for children and began driving around the borough to collect them. Word spread and she ended up getting so many donations that she was struggling to keep up with collecting them all on top of doing her job. Local hairdressers, the Hair Asylum, had heard about what was happening and offered to become an informal drop-off point for the donations. They just kept coming. But it didn’t stop at toys. People donated Amazon vouchers (Gillian is unable to accept monetary donations), furniture, dry food, toiletries, and a local childminder painted jungle murals on the walls.

Local businesses have offered their time and services. Ruby’s Scrumptious Cakes are requesting Christmas presents donations and are giving every resident an advent calendar and selection pack (regardless of their age), Majestic Oven Cleaning have donated Amazon Vouchers as well as their time, the Hair Asylum are giving residents free haircuts in addition to being a drop-off point for donations and high-profile local people such as Nina Cranstoun (Unorthodox Boxing) and her brother Tyber Cranstoun (The Dualers) have helped to spread the word and donate to the dry food/toiletries store.

But it isn’t just the response to Gillian’s post that no one could have imagined, it’s also the impact that the room has had on the residents. A brand-new giant sofa has become a place where people of all ages come to relax and talk about what is going on with them; their fears and hopes about the future, the things from their past that they want to move on from. Simple seasonal activities like pumpkin carving or biscuit decorating have resulted in people and families from a diverse range of backgrounds and circumstances, sitting around a table together. And for the first time that day, that week, that month, those people are connecting to others and doing something enjoyable. A soft play/sensory corner is planned for children on the autistic spectrum as well as children’s desks and chairs, so that children have somewhere they can do their homework and Arts and Crafts and Gillian is hopeful that people will donate to these too.

But the impact goes further than that. Thanks to the new Family Room, residents are talking to each other and connecting in ways they couldn’t when they were all in their own rooms. They are checking in with each other, making each other a cuppa, understanding when someone is having a bad day and knowing how to comfort them. In the words of one parent who felt completely isolated, “The playroom has saved my daughter and me from being stuck in our room. We come here every day to socialise with other parents and my daughter loves exploring and playing with all the toys. This room has saved me.” The Family Room is beginning to create a family.

Gillian said, “They say you are only ever two pay-slips away from homelessness. Things we take for granted like having a sofa or even a toothbrush are things that many of our residents don’t have – or maybe have never had – and they can make all the difference to them. To us it’s a sofa or a toothbrush, to them it makes life a bit more worth living, it’s self-worth – it’s hope. I am mind blown by the response and how far word has spread. One retired woman in Earl’s Court sends us crates full of baked beans or toilet rolls for residents – I can only imagine the lengths she goes to, to get them to us. But it doesn’t even have to be a donation or your time, the simple act of writing a card to one of our residents just saying, “I’m thinking of you, you can do this, you can get through this.” so that they know there are people on their side, can make all the difference. One of the residents has painted a tree mural on the wall of the Family room and we are adding children’s hand-prints as they come and go so we can see it grow and it can represent all the lives that have been changed here.”

If you would like to help Gillian make this a Christmas to remember for residents, you can contact Belle Grove 100 Mickleham Road Orpington BR5 2RJ 0203 096 1235, or the Hair Asylum 9 High Street, Orpington BR6 0JE 07547 609 998 (Ref GILL) or Ruby’s Scrumptious Cakes via her Facebook page where you can donate presents.

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