LIKE many people, this year, Lynn Matthews and her partner Pete Marsh will be spending Christmas day with their family.

But not their biological family – they will be spending it with their ‘street family’ – the scores of homeless people on the streets of Southampton who they have been feeding five nights a week for the last four years.

It all started one cold winter’s evening, when the couple were sitting at home in Millbrook, Southampton, and started to think about people on the streets of the city who weren’t so fortunate.

Pete, 52, had been homeless himself, sleeping rough for over a year, and they wanted to help other people who were in a similar position.

The couple took food and hot drink to see if anyone needed their help, and found many who did.

What started out as a charitable whim has now taken over the couple’s home and their lives. Two rooms in their house are permanently devoted to storing donated food, sleeping bags, clothing and other items.

They have a team of 12 volunteers and an army of more than 4,000 supporters on their Facebook page, The new help the homeless in Southampton.

Pete goes out five nights a week, feeding a hot meal to between 60 and 70 people, as well as distributing other items, such as underwear, sleeping bags and toiletries.

Lynn says that around 40 of these people are street homeless, with the rest staying in hostels or on people’s floors.

They have also started giving out emergency food parcels.

“Universal Credit has hit everyone hard,” says Lynn, 56, “So we’ve started doing emergency parcels. “We’ve all been there and had bad times, she adds.

“Becoming homeless is only a pay packet away for a lot of people. We had a school teacher who lost his job and ended up on the street.

“Universal Credit has definitely made things worse.

“We’ve seen families end up on the streets. One had children aged between four and eight.

“They’d come from outside the area because they were fleeing violence. Luckily, a local family put them up.”

Pete himself became homeless following a relationship breakdown. Initially he was sleeping in his work van but once his employers, a broadband company, discovered what he was doing, he lost his job, and found himself sleeping rough on Southampton’s streets for over a year.

He met Lynn when he moved into a shared house with one of her friends. The couple have been together for nine years. Lynn is disabled and Pete is now her full-time carer. Helping Southampton’s homeless has become a joint project, to which they are both devoted.

As well as using their house as a store, they also often dip into their own bank account to pay for items, food and fuel and spend a huge amount of their time preparing and distributing food, as well as fundraising and raising awareness of the group.

They are currently on a big push for their Christmas Day events. They are hosting a breakfast, dinner and evening buffet, with entertainment and gifts for children, not only for homeless people, but also for anyone else in the area who is struggling or lonely, at Freemantle and Shirley Community Centre.

They are catering for 90 people and as well as looking for donations of new and nearly new presents for children, food and money for items such as plates and cutlery, they are also keen to reach out to local people and encourage them to sign up to come along.

“People can be too proud to come forward and say they want help but they really shouldn’t be,” she says. “Everyone can come and enjoy Christmas with us. This is how we’ve spent Christmas for the last four years, we thoroughly enjoy it. It’s just me and Pete at home now, so I really enjoy spending Christmas with our new family, the homeless.

“A lot of them call me Street Mum and they really are our family,” she says through tears.

The couple say that many of the current and former homeless people they have met in Southampton have become firm friends.

They are very grateful for all the help they have received, from large shops and restaurants as well as a number of small shops near their home in Millbrook and their volunteers and supporters.

“Without them, new just couldn’t carry on,” says Pete.

“We have our nice warm house and we can come home and put our pyjamas on at night,” adds Lynn.

“They are out there, getting cold and wet. Lots of them have mental health issues, or they’ve been assaulted.

“And horrible things can happen when they’re sleeping rough. They can get beaten up or have their bedding urinated on.

“This has become our lives, because when you see it, you can’t let go. It’s like an addiction, but it’s our hearts that are addicted.”

* Lynn and Pete are appealing for items such as food, sleeping bags, nearly new toys and sanitary products to be donated, and for cash donations. They are also looking for someone to volunteer to repair the roof of their conservatory, where much of the food for the homeless is stored.

For more information, or to help, find their Facebook group The new help the homeless Southampton, or call 07555 299805.