Church Winter Night Shelters

What is going through my mind are things that I have been wanting to share since November of last year, when I started my stint as manager of one of the church winter night shelters for homeless folk, here in Southend. Now my involvement is nigh over, or at least until we start up again later this year, I feel I can share some personal reflections, which also takes into account what has happened since then and considers where we are now. Because of issues of confidentiality and sensitivity, it wouldn’t be appropriate to name names or say everything that is on my mind, but at least I will try to cover the important points and present some of my main thoughts; and thus help to build up a picture of what went on and the issues that have arisen and may yet arise. As a keen historian, I am happiest when we can put the record straight, and more so when what is intended has important ramifications, as it does here. As always in such matters though, the different people involved will offer other perspectives, and these too should always be taken into account in order to paint a completely rounded picture.

As some will know, homelessness is one of my main community activist interests. You can find out more by reading my “Outside the Camp” and “Onward and Upward” books, both available as free downloads via the “Writings” tab of this website. You can also check out SHAN, an organization I am actively involved with that tries to help the homeless, via the “SHAN” tab and by looking at a previous blog entry: “Myths about rough sleeping”, 3 March 2014. Additional, albeit temporary, night shelters being set up in the first place destroys one myth: there is no need for emergency accommodation, for, as became abundantly clear,  many would have had to sleep rough if this were not available. If what follows appears to assume some prior knowledge, it is because I am reluctant to repeat myself. Suffice to say, Southend like many other places in the UK, does have a significant rough sleeper population that need help.

Since I wrote my earlier blog post, there have been developments such as my joining an early morning police patrol looking out for rough sleepers and further engagement with mental health services, important as mental health issues affect many rough sleepers, as well as a number of individual exchanges with interested parties and rough sleepers themselves. I have also had occasions to speak at meetings on these matters and this has been well received. My hope is not only will more people gain knowledge but they will be more inclined to act, and do so in a smart way. Reflecting on all this may have to wait for another time but now I return to my subject.

This is a third year the Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) scheme has been going and I would like to think SHAN has played an important part in making it happen. This year, seven churches agreed to run night shelters based at their premises, for one night each week, between November and March. As is often the case, many other parties have played a part, with some maybe claiming more credit than they deserve, but it really was a partnership undertaking in the best sense of the term. From a CWNS manager perspective, I would want to pay tribute to the army of volunteers, often bringing quite different skills, who have given so much in order for this to work. There is always need for people able and willing to help, in a variety, even if small, ways, and the help that has been given has been fantastic and has made a real difference.

While taking a keen interest from before the inception of the scheme, I did not become actively involved until this third year of running, when it became apparent that one of the CWNSs (St. Andrews) needed a manager to oversee their part of the operation in order to continue. St. Andrews had already been running their Open House hospitality scheme, which was particularly aimed at those on the edges of society, so their continuing with CWNS seemed the right and proper thing to do. Sensing this was the right thing for me to do also and having become free and available to take on such an undertaking, I volunteered and I got the job!

People sleeping on the streets have been around a long time and despite efforts to provide accommodation, typically, as far as Southend is concerned, through the homeless charity, HARP, there remain a number of rough sleepers who can’t or won’t be accommodated. Some choose that way of life, deliberately or by not engaging with the services that are out there and some due to their particular personal issues, typically around addiction and mental health, who are difficult to accommodate, even in a supervised setting. Others are unfortunate victims of circumstances, who find themselves on the streets and having somehow to fend for themselves, despite a whole range of services that are freely available, as the rough sleeper leaflet, recently produced by SHAN, shows. You will need to refer to my earlier blog entry on the subject for the whys and wherefores as to how a person becomes homeless and what he/she can or tries to do to reverse the situation.

Local authorities have a humanitarian obligation to accommodate homeless people when the temperature drops below zero. How to fulfill this remains a challenge but it was this that provided the impetus for making the idea of CWNS become a reality. The idea was simple in principle although, as any who became much involved might testify, one requiring considerable commitment, effort, resource and wisdom to implement effectively. Each of the participating churches would agree to provide overnight accommodation for 20 persons (sometimes it was slightly more), along with evening meals and breakfast, to homeless folk that have been referred to them, mainly by HARP, along with some self-referrals and some who turn up just for the meal, sometimes haven chosen to rough sleep. We found there were some who had accommodation that liked what we offered and they were also needy; although later we found we had to restrict access for those in that group as we felt we couldn’t cope well with the extra numbers.

Seven churches were involved from seven different denominations, providing widely differing accommodation, in most cases not designed for such an activity but by creative adaptation a suitable service could be offered. As guests will testify, each shelter has its own character but all seeking to provide hospitality as best they could. While limited in what could be provided, the churches did what they could to make their guests feel welcome and whatever little touches they could add – such as the odd game of chess, providing showers, giving out second hand clothes, administering first aid and simply listening and speaking kindly yet truthfully. The service provided was for all faiths and none, and religion was never imposed on any, although it was interesting to observe that a number of our guests felt this to be important.

The coldest months were chosen for running this service as this is when the need was greatest. It was not just on the days when the temperature fell to zero but every day throughout the period the scheme operated. A partnership was formed involving the Council, HARP and Love Southend (an umbrella for participating churches), joined by other organizations, such as the YMCA. The Council provided some funding and resources, HARP did the referrals, vetting and follow ups and the churches provided the volunteers and delivered the service. It would have been nice to provide an around the year service but as I realized, now the end has come, volunteers do become tired and, while the need was evident during that period, there is only so much we could do. Dealing with people in need, not always as successfully as we might wish, did take its toll. The matter of supervision and counseling for the helpers was also important, although in practice this was rather ad hoc. Sometimes we had to draw the line as to what help we did provide. Yet at the end we could look back gratefully: we not only survived but we thrived.

Saying “no” can be difficult but is sometimes necessary, even if we fail to meet the needs and expectations of some, if we are to win the end game. Similarly, rules need to be made and boundaries kept to if we take a view that we are in a marathon rather than a sprint. Our natural tendency though is to help if possible but realistically we need to focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t. I have often found myself speaking to a guest that had failed to follow the rules along the lines that my over-riding criteria is the health and safety of other guests and volunteers, so they had better watch out or leave. I might refer to the football referee that has to send off a player for breaking the rules, even when not the one initiating the offense. When starting, I felt like I was thrown into the deep end. While I had been briefed and did arrange with my team such things as roles and responsibilities, nothing could fully prepare me for what was to happen on this my first night of duty, when we were confronted with the up to twenty referred guests on the HARP list and around the same number who self referred or just wanted a meal, most of who I was to meet for the first time.

One of the tasks of a WNS manager was to write up how each guest fared in a log book and electronically produce a report of what happened at each session, particularly noting anything out of the ordinary and any issues that arose regarding individual guests, and then email this to those involved in the process. I looked forward to reading these daily reports over a four and a bit month period, as they invariably made interesting and informative reading. People who at the beginning were just names, quickly forgotten if you have a memory like mine, became larger than life, and empathy grew as we got to know people better and share in their sorrows and joys, successes and disappointments, up and downs, although a certain detachment was always necessary to survive. Of the around 20 guests accommodated each session, most were single men between 25 and 50. There was 20% who were woman. 25% of guests were of BME origin, more than the 15% of the population of Southend BME residents, many from Eastern Europe as a result of unrestricted travel for EU citizens. Many came hoping to find work but without success. Moreover, often they had no recourse to public funds (NRPF) and a number turned to alcohol. Of the few non-Europeans BME guests, some were Caribbean and some were Zimbabwean, their NRPF status often meaning they couldn’t work also.

One of the first incidents I had to deal with was with one who was well known to some of those working regularly among rough sleepers, who had an issue around alcohol addiction. He was drunk and had been barred elsewhere and we had to exclude him despite his reluctance to leave and feelings of rejection, which he expressed with some colorful language. During the next few months, he would crop up from time to time in various states of intoxication. On one of his more sober occasions, I recall our playing chess while listening with pleasure to one of our volunteers playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the church piano, even inviting an encore. It was quite fitting that on our very last night, the last person to turn up was he, relatively sober. He wanted to say thank you for the help we had given him and assure us that he had found accommodation and was optimistic that his issues would be dealt with.

As for that first night experience, we survived and I could write in my first report: “peaceful session and things went relatively smoothly – lessons to learn but we have a dedicated team with lots of experience, and look forward to the long haul ahead”. Not that every week was peaceful but most were but even if quiet we were invariably busy. The two weeks I felt most tension were both as a result of alcohol fuelled anti-social behavior, but even then we were able to offer a good service and a place of safety and hospitality. Dealing with often around 40 guests (the record was 53), all having quite different needs, with varying circumstances, often with quite different attitudes, did offer up to us a challenge.

There were many more incidents to follow and, while challenging at the time, these often resulted in positive outcomes. One lady, clearly under the influence of alcohol, provided a major disruption, although two weeks later we bumped into each other when she was sober. We talked calmly and I even got a hug! One man who frequently turned up, sometimes drunk, expressed fear and inability to cope, yet desirous for a better life; we had several cultural exchanges. Another guest on one occasion had an OCD related panic attack, while we were trying to close up, and our attempts to deal with him were not particularly successful at the time. The following week we could talk about and even laugh over what happened. Another lady, who was a regular in the early days, was a compulsive hoarder, who was charming but also hard work. We continue to take an interest in our guests, including the more problematic ones. The last I heard was that our drunk lady sadly continues with her destructive alcohol related behaviour, our fearful, cultured man is hopeful but has some way to go still, and the final two are now in more permanent accommodation and doing at least ok.

There were many other individuals, whose stories and engaging with CWNS are firmly etched on my mind. While sometimes relationships could turn sour, in the vast majority of cases I saw our dealings in mainly positive terms. Over the weeks, I got to know the guests better and followed their journeys, which often included a number of ups and downs, with interest. Finding out more about their stories was invariably interesting and reinforced my view that a number were their own worst enemies in terms of getting back into accommodation and living as useful citizens in the community. Some of the insights I gained made me realize how most of us, if our circumstances were different, could have ended up in similar situations. Personally, I found most guests were interesting people, who responded well to what we had to offer, with amazing insights into life. While some continued to use our services, there was also a steady turnover due to guests moving on or finding more appropriate accommodation. A number surprised me by their chess playing prowess and love for the game, and their love and understanding of literature. I was also touched by many incidents of courage and generosity of spirit that I witnessed.

As with any group in society, our guests represented a plethora of backgrounds, needs and attitudes. While there was some anti-social behavior, especially if alcohol was involved, most guests behaved remarkably well given the difficult situations they were in. One issue that we became increasingly aware of was that a number of our guests had deep rooted mental health issues and it continues to be a concern that the services one might expect to help, don’t. Alcohol was the one reoccurring theme throughout the whole process. While people react differently to taking excessive amounts of alcohol, most become difficult to deal with when under the influence and often their behavior changes for the worse. Trying to manage such situations was often among our biggest challenges.

When I reflect on the journeys of our guests, while it was always refreshing to see people find accommodation and work and generally get their lives sorted out, it was often the case that when progress had been made some would fall back, and often the common factor was alcohol! I have no doubts the reasons include relative cheapness, ready availability, and it does numb the pain, besides which once a person becomes addicted it is very difficult to become free from that addiction. I can think of a number of examples of guests, who I had got to know well, in that situation, and I feel deeply sad. For some/many of guests, dealing with the demons in their lives remains the greatest challenge. Sometimes the suggested simple steps just aren’t taken. While never dismissing those who do random or even planned acts of kindness, I would suggest finding creative ways to empower others might be one of the best services that one might perform.

Being involved in the process, placed me on a steep learning curve, and I am still learning. It also gave me a chance to work with a large number of folk, often from quite different backgrounds and with different ideas on how to go about the task. I felt it was a privilege to be involved in this work and any sacrifice I did make was all worthwhile because of the difference that was made. Given that we did succeed in providing a valuable service was down to team work and the hard work of those involved from all those participating, often complementing each others by their various contributions.

Miscommunication and misunderstanding did occur on a number of occasions and people did get upset. In some areas, such as who to admit and who to turn away, disagreement remains. And while an attempt was made to write a manual on what to do when confronted with the situations we had to deal with, I felt that however desirable trying to do this was, and whatever progress had been made, it was a nigh impossible undertaking given the chaotic lifestyle of many of those we were trying to help. But we did our best and we tried to do what was right. The main thing was that we provided a service that helped many and made a real difference to lives.

I continually remind myself of one of the main lessons of chess – to get ourselves best placed in order to win the end game! To a good degree, my actions and decisions were made with this principle in mind. I am quite resolved to the fact that often we are dealing with wicked situations with no clear cut or simple solution and we have to pragmatically work in paradigms that we would not choose for ourselves. Having spoken with many of the guests, I have found much to my surprise that the vast majority were very grateful for what we had provided. A number even shared that without access to CWNS their own situations would have been a whole lot worse. Even if we felt it was not particularly significant, in their eyes it was. I suspect all of us have a need to feel wanted and be valued, and in a small way we did meet that need.

Given that from next month the rough sleeper population of Southend will likely increase, if not by 20, by a number approaching that, we can’t say our chess game has yet been won, but we can say we have played some strong moves and, providing we persist, we will be on the way to winning it. Besides attending meetings to reflect of what has just passed and what might happen in the future, my involvement as a CWNS manager is effectively ended. My last act was to attend the homeless equivalent of an end of term party at the WNS that hosted the very last session. It was a positive, even joyous, occasion and it became quite evident meeting guests, past and present, how much has been achieved for so many, who are now able to move on with their lives, often having found accommodation. Yet for others, they still struggle with issues and have to face the prospect of life on the streets. There is much work still to be done.

As for CWNS, the thought that churches can effectively deliver on behalf of the dis-empowered and impoverished, as it has been demonstrated, continues to enthuse me, as does the idea of working with diverse partners, in a secular, multi-cultural, multi-faith paradigm. While CWNS shows this can work, the traditional alignment to Judeo-Christian values, such as duty, strictness, discipline, manners and righteousness, now being replaced by values based around notions of tolerance, hedonism, freedom, self-actualization and equal rights, can and does create tension. Notwithstanding, as CWNS has demonstrated, there is much more that churches together can do in meeting the needs of those who live on the edges of society or who have fallen through the gaps.

Despite what anyone says, the gaps in terms of availability of services etc. that deal with unmet human needs are enormous, and often it is those who are in the churches that find themselves picking up the pieces. No one has a monopoly on being able or having the mandate to deal with this, certainly not government (as much as we might hope and expect they should picking up on and addressing the issues that lead poverty and injustice). I am frequently humbled when I see the most unlikely people, including those with a natural antipathy toward religion and church, helping where the need is greatest. But as I have explained in my book: “Theological musings”, freely downloadable via the “Writings” tab, my hope is that the church will take a lead in meeting this hitherto unmet need.

Postscript: one of my final acts of WNS manager was to attend a meeting with my team to reflect of what had gone on in the past and what might happen in the future. I also did a similar exercise with the other WNS managers and partners. I wrote a report of what took place. I look forward to what might happen in the future and hope the collective we can indeed continue to make a difference. As I step down from being WNS manager, my feelings are mixed: I am sad that something I enjoyed doing, thought I could do well and felt made a good deal of difference has now come to an end. I am sad also that I won’t be so involved with the guests, whose progress I will keenly follow, many of which have ongoing issues still, and less involved with the team of wonderful volunteers it has been my privileged to work with. I appreciate that St. Andrews has kept faith with and supported me, a relative outsider and one known for his maverick and non-conformist tendencies. I am grateful to my family for their support and to the Lord God Almighty for His. But the show must go on – so watch this space …