A CATHOLIC church has closed its doors to a service which has been offering food to the homeless for 24 years.

Bournemouth’s Church of the Sacred Heart has told the Drop Inn service to leave, leaving the town without food handouts for the homeless on two nights a week.

The service had helped earn a Papal medal for its long-serving organiser John Coulston.

The Drop Inn ran a soup kitchen at the church hall, in Richmond Hill, until the end of last year, when volunteers were told they would have to stop using the hall’s kitchen. They have since been offering sandwiches to the homeless.

Father Bruce Barnes, who became priest at the church last October, told parishioners the church wanted to “re-claim” the hall for its own social use. Homeless people who turn up at the church will be given a voucher to use the town’s St Paul’s night shelter, around a mile away.

One supporter of the service called the church’s attitude “un-Christian”.

“I think it’s been totally unfair,” she said.

Mr Coulston said Father Barnes had called him in after mass on Sunday last year. “He said: ‘John, you’ve done a wonderful job over the years and I think the time has come to draw a line’,” said Mr Coulston.

He said the church had wanted the Drop Inn to end last year but had agreed to allow soup and sandwiches to be served until the spring.

“At least we got through the winter, which is important,” he said.

“There’s a huge number of people I’d like to pay tribute to from all over the world, volunteers that have helped there.

“I should think we’ve probably served about 150,000 meals.”

He said the loss of the service meant there was no food for the homeless on Thursdays and Sundays but he was hoping other caring organisations would step in.

In a letter to parishioners, Father Barnes said the church community was required to come together and enjoy each other’s company.

“It is my belief that the space within the halls has to be reclaimed for use by the parish community so that all kinds of events may be held without fear of encroaching on other people’s time or ‘booked space’,” he wrote.

He said “every attempt” had been made to find alternative accommodation for hall users.

The Drop Inn would “cease to function in its present form as from Easter”.

He added: “Those who are in genuine need and who ask for shelter for the night will be given a voucher to spend a night in the town shelter, paid for by contributions from St Anthony’s Bread.

“Food distribution centres continue to operate around Bournemouth and volunteers are always needed to help with this work.”

WHEN asked by the Daily Echo why the Drop Inn service was being ended, Father Barnes said: “The main reason is that we need to reclaim the hall at weekends for church use.

“At the moment, self-help groups and the drop-in centre take up 90 per cent of the hall. We have a big appeal coming up in the church and need to have the hall used for events in the parish.

“The other thing is that there has been a lot of antisocial behaviour. The police and paramedics were called out to an overdose in the toilets, which John didn’t tell me about. We also had a letter from Bristol and West opposite about antisocial behaviour from people coming into the centre.

“We have 40 children coming in for instruction and classes. We can’t allow syringes to be left out, broken bottles of spirits, that sort of thing. It’s happening enough for people to make a comment about it.”

Father Barnes said the kitchens and toilets at the centre also needed to be replaced to meet current health and hygiene standards.

He added that the closure of the Drop Inn did not indicate a lack of concern for those in need. “Contributions to that are substantial here in the parish,” he said.

He claimed it would be “naïve” to say that users of the service would starve without it. “They’re throwing a lot of food away,” he said.

“We’ve asked various communities if somehow they could get the team to help in another place, but nobody is prepared to take it on. I’m sorry that this has had to happen. We made a decision as a parish council and that was an informed decision.”