Robb Sheppard Q&A for SIFA Fireside Homeless Charity

Homelessness is a topic close to our heart here at Grapevine Birmingham. Having taken time to support those living and surviving on the streets of the second city, highlighting people’s plight and lobbying government to do more particularly for the vulnerable, we have reached out to homeless charity SIFA Fireside to offer a free platform for the brilliant work they do in Digbeth and beyond.

After a tour of the charity’s Support Centre in Digbeth, we will be offering a site-wide banner to encourage donations, as well as the publication of press posts which we will be publishing to the website and sharing to our social channels reaching over 21,000 local followers.

With this in mind, a Q&A interview with Robb Sheppard, head of communications is a great way to introduce the charity to Grapevine Birmingham’s many followers.

Q: Hello Robb, first up, thanks for the tour around SIFA Fireside. Could you explain for anyone that doesn’t know, what SIFA Fireside offers and what your role is within the business.

Thanks Nick. SIFA Fireside runs the support centre for adults over the age of 25 that are experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness.

This support is split into three stands. Firstly, there’s Rough Sleepers and Emergency support, which can include anything from a hot shower and a warm drink to physical and mental health support, and access to Birmingham City Council’s Housing Options team who are based here at the Support Centre in Digbeth.

In addition to those services we focus on Prevention, which includes Health and Wellbeing advice, appointments with a Department of Work and Pensions advisor and specialist advice for those in Supported Accommodation.

Then we have our Recovery activities which vary from sewing workshops to cookery classes, from personal trainer sessions to arts therapy, as well as IT, numeracy skills classes and job clubs.

Sorry I can’t be more concise than that, but we’re basically a one-stop shop for anyone who finds themselves dealing with the effects of homelessness.

Q: What is a typical day at SIFA Fireside?

Our volunteers and Volunteer Coordinator are on site preparing breakfast and lunch from just before 8am, with our frontline staff starting shortly afterwards. Our doors open for those rough sleeping or in need of emergency support from 9am so they get priority access to support services. From 10.30 the Support Centre fills up a little more, with clients attending appointments and getting laundry done and usually having lunch. And then from 1pm until 5pm, we’re running classes and workshops.

It’s cliché to say that no two days are the same but it’s true. There can be some very challenging days where we can’t quite get the exact outcome we want for a client and there are days when we really feel like we’re changing lives for the better and those are the days we all strive for.

Q: The homeless problem within Birmingham and the UK has become progressively worse according to official statistics, what do you think is driving this and is there hope things will improve?

Homelessness is the ultimate form of exclusion and the drivers for it are multiple and complex. You can’t pin it down to a single cause or solution because everyone’s experiences are so different. We do know there are some key drivers of homelessness which need to be tackled though: poverty, domestic abuse, unsuitable/unstable housing solutions…

But there’s always hope. The Supported Housing (Regulatory Oversight) Bill was passed in the House of Lords in June of this year and will soon be signed into law, which will increase support and safety for the people in exempt housing, giving them a sturdy footing from which to rebuild their lives. There are also some amazing organisations that are working together to affect change on a national level and with that combined approach, we believe that we can end homelessness.

Q: A common complaint I see online and in the media, is that many homeless people actually have places to stay, and simply take the easy option of begging on the streets to fund addictions. Do you think this is a fair viewpoint?

We see very few people that beg coming into our Support Centre, to be honest. There’s not always a direct connection between people we see begging and people experiencing homelessness and we think it’s important to make that distinction. The people that present here rely on our services and come to the centre for specialist support. That’s why donating either directly to a service such as SIFA Fireside or through Change into Action is so important; you know that your money is being used in the best way for people who need it the most.

But you never really know someone’s situation and I wouldn’t say begging or having an addiction are easy options. For anyone that does still sleep rough but has an offer of accommodation, there can be a period of transition while people adjust and feel comfortable with being accommodated. It is also important that the accommodation offer is suitable to meet their support needs, as well as being an environment that they feel safe in.

Q: Mental health is widely reported as a big contributor to homelessness, what kind of backgrounds would you say the people through your doors come from, is it mainly UK, local or people new to the UK who arrive at SIFA Fireside?

Poor mental health can be both a primary cause and a consequence of homelessness. In fact, 67% of clients who accessed SIFA Fireside in the last half of 2022 reported a mental health issue, either diagnosed or undiagnosed.

But we’ll support anyone that comes to our door, even if that’s just signposting to another, more appropriate organisation – if a client is under 25, for example, we refer them to our neighbours at St Basil’s. But in order to be housed, clients need to have a local connection to Birmingham, so we see a lot of UK nationals. There are also a number of clients from Eastern and Central European countries that require specialist support from our team.

Q: What can people do if they see someone in distress or vulnerable on the streets of Birmingham?

Good question, and one we get quite a lot. It depends on how safe you feel; we have support service cards which can be handed out to anyone who you think might be vulnerable. These have got the phone number, opening hours and directions down to our Support Centre in Digbeth and hopefully they give our clients a bit more confidence and encouragement to come down and see us and seek support.

There’s also the StreetLink app if you see someone sleeping rough; you can let Streetlink know the location of the individual and a trained professional will visit them and offer support, and you can get email notifications that let you know the outcome. We post these details a lot on our socials so if you are out and about and you’re concerned about someone, take a look at one of our platforms and you’re never too far away from some advice.

Q: How many people does SIFA Fireside help in a typical day? Do you see repeat visitors or is it mainly new people requesting help?

In 2022/23, we supported 2,880 people at our Support Centre, but this can be accessing any of our services from rough sleepers and emergency support to art therapy and job club.

On average, we see clients 10 times at different stages of their journey and this can sometimes take place over a few years. We also see some people just the once as they access the Housing Options service and settle straight away.

Q: How are you funded, and does the local council or government contribute?

Some of our Prevention services, namely The Adult Support Hub and our Housing Transition service are commissioned by Birmingham City Council, and we rely on trusts and grants to fund some of our staff team. But everything else, like our specialist frontline staff, the food and the shower facilities are funded by kind donations from the public and help from our corporate partners. We literally couldn’t do it without that support.

Q: Finally, how can people reading this help support the brilliant work you all do at SIFA Fireside?

We really appreciate every single gift in kind donation that we get, but it is financial donations that we’re always desperate for. Donating money means that we can keep the doors open and the shelves stocked down here at our Support Centre.

You can donate here or via and even a modest donation will have a positive impact on the lives of people experiencing homelessness in the city. Thanks Brum.

Thanks Robb, great to catch up and see you soon. Nick Byng.

*Robb is pictured right in featured image.