In less than a month the Southend Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) provision is due to start up, and will run every night from December until March. As last year, seven churches will be involved: Southend Christian Fellowship (Monday), Shoebury Baptist (Tuesday), Storehouse (Wednesday), Westcliff Free (Thursday), Ferndale Baptist (Friday), Whittingham Methodist (Saturday) and Avenue Baptist (Sunday). Seven different churches are covering each of the seven nights with the intention that for the potentially worst four months of the year weather wise there will be full coverage for the whole of that period in terms of providing evening meals and breakfast, along with overnight accommodation and commensurate hospitality, for 20 and sometimes more guests that come to us, who typically would otherwise be sleeping rough.
It is not my intention here to repeat the official briefings that come from John Simmons, who coordinates the overall operation, or repeat generally applicable information, but rather talk about my own operation. By “my own”, I refer to the CWNS to take place at Ferndale Baptist Church, where I happen to be manager designate. I have already reflected twice on the CWNS program (click here for what happened last year and here as I look forward to this year) and what I want to do in this posting is to talk about how I see things now from the Ferndale perspective, although such is life changes are nigh inevitable. The Ferndale operation is unique from the perspective that while the church provides the building and facilities whereby we are able to function, the people who volunteer will be from elsewhere: other churches or no church at all. While CWNS is about providing Christian hospitality, it serves those of all faiths and none and those serving reflect that. For those not of “the faith”, we don’t proselytise, but we do share our faith if people ask and try to show it by action. What unites us is our common humanity and meeting a real human need. What we offer is limited, yet significant (many have told us so): we provide respite for 13 hours (7pm – 8am) for our guests and operate three volunteer shifts: 1830-2200 (8 persons, including 2 for the cooking team), 2200-0600 (3 persons, including 1 male, 1 female), 0600-0830 (4 persons). In terms of help before and after they come to us, we are limited in what we can do and rely on partners, particularly HARP, to pick up on such matters.
Having established the viability of holding an operation at Ferndale and doing some of the practical stuff, such as sorting out bedding, it is time to prepare in detail and in particular set up a rota of volunteers for doing the various duties: cooking and overnight sleeping (the two biggies), welcoming and registering guests, making and serving teas and coffees, sorting out the bedding, checking the washroom facilities, being around to assist and chat to the guests etc. I am grateful for those who have indicated their willingness to volunteer, but the time has come for people to commit and I will be contacting individually those who have expressed an interest and invite anyone else that may be interested to contact me. Besides doing a draft rota, there will be a meeting scheduled on Friday 21st November 7.30 – 9.30 pm, at Ferndale Baptist Church, in order to go over all the requirements of volunteering for the Ferndale operation and answer any questions. There will also be a volunteer briefing for all the CWNS volunteers, to be held Tuesday 25th November, 7.30 – 9.30 pm, at Shoebury Baptist Church, to brief all CWNS volunteers on the main things that are entailed.
Our first night will be Friday 5th December and then every Friday until 27th March 2015. People can volunteer as often or as little as they wish and for the shifts that suit best. We are conscious of potential “burn out” and suggest that those who wish to volunteer regularly choose 1 or 2 shifts and do it no more than every other week. While it is always helpful to have volunteers who have worked with rough sleepers and know something about issues like mental health and substance misuse, what is required is a willing heart, an attitude that wants to get stuck in and help, and being able to work in a team. While there is a sacrifice to be made, many who have volunteered in the past have felt the rewards of serving in this way more than compensate, and they do make a difference.
The ethos of the night shelters is to treat those who come to us as honoured guests. Equally, we need to recognise our limitations concerning our ability to sort out some of the issues some of our guests face. We need to recognise each guest is unique, having his/her own set of unique needs and expectations. We have found they vary between those who are hardened rough sleepers with deep rooted issues to those newly homeless because of some misfortune. There will be a fair number of foreign migrants and females among them. Because of the chaotic lifestyle of some who do come to us, we do have to operate certain rules. Reasons why most guests we receive are referred to us by HARP, include HARP being the “experts” in matters such as risk assessment and the place where people are pointed to because of the help they offer when they do become homeless. We do operate strict rules for the guests such as expectations of reasonable behaviour, not being under the undue influence of alcohol or drugs or bringing these onto the premises, lights out at 2300 and remaining on the premises to 0600. We expect volunteers to understand this and to encourage guests to abide by the rules, as the primary consideration has to be the health and safety of other guests and volunteers.
Ferndale CWNS will soon be open for “business”, along with our partners in the six other churches participating in the scheme, as well as from HARP and Southend Council. We don’t judge or pontificate and try not to criticise, but rather we set out to give the twenty or so guests that come to us a good experience and try to make them feel they do matter and that people do care. We will do all this with the help of our volunteer team, which may include you!