As dawn breaks on Princes Street, there is one familiar face those waking up on the freezing pavements look for, 6-year-old Alfie on his rounds offering hot drinks, a friendly word and a smile
At just six years old most young lads would spend their Saturday mornings either sound asleep or watching cartoons in their jammies. But Alfie Roncero is no ordinary lad.
When he started asking his father “why people are always sitting on the ground” along Princes Street, dad Richard decided to use this curiosity to educate his son about those less fortunate than himself.
That led to the youngster joining Richard, 36, as a volunteer offering hot drinks and a friendly word to those sleeping on the streets.
Now, every week, Alfie spends the first part of his weekend getting up with his dad to go on an early morning run to help those at the bottom of life’s pile.
The pair visit Princes Street and various nearby nooks and crannies popular with rough sleepers to offer a hot drink and a bit of simple compassion.
He said: “ I wanted to teach him that we need to be kind to people. I think it’s so important to show our kids that no matter where we end up in life, we should always show love, respect, and compassion to other people.
“When handing out the coffees Alfie said that ‘these people must be really cold’ this was Alfie starting to see what being homeless truly means and the struggles they face.”
The young father went on to say that he knew some people would think his son is too young to volunteer on Edinburgh’s streets but he thinks it’s “important that Alfie understands”.
He said: “Alfie was safe with his dad the entire time and I feel he learned so much that morning.
“I want to instil morals and values into my son so he grows up not judging people, but willing to reach out and help where he can.
Alfie proved to be a popular volunteer among Edinburgh’s homeless community with one rough sleeper calling him ‘a little angel’ as he passed a coffee to her.
Proud dad Richard said: “Alfie is a very clever little boy and has such a kind heart. I’m really proud to call him my son.”
Richard is a recovered cocaine addict who is now helping other addicts and in April 2018 founded Steps to Hope, an Edinburgh charity tackling homelessness caused by addiction.
He does regular coffee runs for the homeless which sees him rising at 6am to drive around the streets of Edinburgh looking for rough sleepers before heading into work.
He said: “I go into cemeteries, the back streets, Princess Street Gardens and count how many people we can see. Then we buy the coffees and deliver the hot drinks and information leaflets to them.”
It was when Alfie started asking pointed questions about the homeless people that he saw when he visited Princes Street that Richard realised that the time might have come to tell his son some of the unvarnished truth about life for some of the least fortunate people in the Capital.
Richard knows first hand what it’s like to sleep in Edinburgh’s streets in winter and since recovering from an addiction to cocaine has become passionate about breaking the stigma around recovery and homelessness. Edinburgh-born Richard tells how he began using cocaine as a way to cope with life at the age of 15 after he was expelled from school.
He said: “From a young age I always had little confidence and low self-esteem. I struggled my way through school always trying to be accepted by my peers and masking my anxiety and insecurities with humour.”
Richard, now five years clean, said cocaine was his “answer to life” and helped him cope with his fears and anxiety.
He said: “From the moment I took that first line all my fears disappeared. I had confidence, I could speak to people without worrying about how I was coming across.”
However, this quickly led to Richard relying on cocaine as a tool for life.
He said: “I hated being Richard and wanted to change the way I felt about myself. So I had to use substance at any cost. This led to a very dark life which resulted in me losing relationships with my family and going to prison.”
Richard described these years as “hell on earth” but finally managed to recover after a mentor helped him follow a 12-step process.
He said: “Through going into rehab and attending recovery meetings I was introduced to another addict who was 13 years clean at the time.
“He mentored me into recovery. I went through the 12 step recovery program taught me how to stop, how to stay stopped and more importantly how to change as a person and for the first time in my life I started to like the person I was becoming.”
Since recovering Richard has bought a house, holds down a full-time job and has reconnected with his family who had “washed their hands of him”.
He said: “My daughter Courtney Roncero, 16, who had washed her hands with me after I went into rehab for the second time, started to believe in me and walked with me every step of the way.
“I ended up purchasing my own home and Courtney moved in with me full time.”
He added: “As we approach winter and the cold weather is already on us, I hope more people can show some love to those who find themselves sleeping on our streets.
“I’ve seen the heartache in their eyes as I take them their coffee in the mornings. A lot of these people are suffering from addiction, which is an illness they don’t have a solution for.
“As a result they have been left homeless and don’t have anybody. Believe me when I say sleeping rough is hell. It’s the loneliest place in the world.
“Having someone give them their time, a couple of minutes’ chat, something hot to drink and eat really does deliver hope to those who have given up.”