Meet David Bonnett: 'Godfather of the homeless in Bury St Edmunds'

Community Hero David Bonnett. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Adnams Community Hero David Bonnett, one of the trustees of Bury Drop In, a charity that helps the homeless and vulnerable. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

David Bonnett from Bury St Edmunds works tirelessly to help the homeless, with bundles of energy and patience.

The retired 71-year-old is one of the founders of Bury Drop In, a Christian-based organisation that supports the vulnerable, some of whom have mental health problems and addictions.

In 'normal' times there are twice-weekly drop-in sessions at the Trinity Methodist Church in Brentgovel Street, but the charity has had to adapt its support due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bury Drop In was formed out of a need in the community - and "sadly" there is still a need for it to exist.

Community Hero David Bonnett. Picture: Sarah Lucy Brown

Adnams Community Hero David Bonnett. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

At the first session around six years ago - when they took place in Garland Street - there were two guests and 20 volunteers.

"But the word went out we were not authority and we could be trusted," said Mr Bonnett, who used to work as a purchasing manager for a pharmaceuticals company.

There are now around 150-170 guests on their books, with about 80 guests attending a session when they were running.

There, the needy were welcomed as friends and could access what many of us take for granted - hot food and conversation.

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At least 70 "very committed" volunteers help out with the centre, giving guests the chance to build up a healthy relationship - as opposed to one that is perhaps with drug dealers who are out for money, Mr Bonnett said.

Also, an important element of the drop-in centre is that it signposts people to help from a variety of organisations.

Bury Rickshaw is one of the organisations that works with Bury Drop In.

Bury Rickshaw is one of the organisations that works with Bury Drop In. Here, trustee Libby Ranzetta is with surplus food from Bury Drop In for the Best Before Project (now Still Good Food). - Credit: Bury Rickshaw

My Bonnett, a grandfather-of-seven, said: "John Donne [the poet] wrote 'For Whom the Bell Tolls'.

"Everyone is in the same boat. Who knows, it doesn't take a lot to be in that position. It's very easy.

"They always say you are only a couple of pay cheques from the street at any time. We have guys come in who had good jobs and all of a sudden everything goes."

Mr Bonnett said there was a "huge" and increasing need in terms of mental health - and he believes mental health problems are the starting point for addictions.

And mental health and addiction often comes with homelessness, he added.

He described some the stories of the drop-in guests as "absolutely heart-breaking" - tales of parental neglect, trauma and the drifting into drug and alcohol dependency. 

There are success stories, Mr Bonnett said, but they can be hard to quantify. Someone not coming back to drop in because they have got a job is deemed a triumph.

"The Theatre Royal [in Bury St Edmunds] do lots with us. They set up a writing group. One guest who has had issues all his life went along to that and is still writing.

"He writes a journal every day. That is success," Mr Bonnett said.

Bury Drop In is also behind the alternative giving campaign called 'Looking for Change' in Bury St Edmunds, which encourages people to help the homeless by text or online donations and is backed by partners including West Suffolk Council.

The launch of the Looking for Change campaign.

The launch of the Looking for Change campaign. - Credit: West Suffolk Council

Mr Bonnett said he was once introduced by someone as 'the godfather to the homeless in Bury'.

"It always comes back to the parable of the Good Samaritan," he said. "I always had compassion, if you like, for people who have less than we do and are struggling."

He wanted to stress that he is just a "figurehead" of the charity and there are many volunteers, organisations and businesses involved.

Patience is an essential quality in his role, and one of the "guiding principles" of the drop in is being non-judgemental.

"They become friends because we become entwined with their lives," he said. "When Will Crump [a guest] died I sat and cried."

Mr Crump is one of eight Bury Drop In guests who have died over the duration of the pandemic, Mr Bonnett said, adding "there's got to be some correlation there somewhere".

The process of opening up the drop-in sessions starts in September. 

During the pandemic, work has been ongoing and included food deliveries and a text and call service to keep in regular contact with their guests.

For more information about Bury Drop In visit the website.