For the past two months and more I have been looking forward to and preparing for the church winter night shelter program, part of which (one of the seven shelters in question) I happen to be managing, starting yesterday and going on for the next four months. There has been a lot of stuff to sort out to be sure, in order to run an effective operation, and it is always amazing that so many have stepped up to the plate in order to make it all happen, sometimes from unlikely quarters, for which I am both relieved and grateful, but it did result in us hitting the ground running, although the doing of which was a lot smoother than if we hadn’t prepared.
In a way, the operation (for me) that started 5.30pm yesterday and finished 8.30am today, was fairly tame compared with what might have been and thinking that on the first night of each of the past two years winter night shelter programs we had to deal with guests or wannabe guests whose behavior, let us say, was challenging. None of that this year, with our most challenging incident having to deal with someone rolling a cigarette inside, in the early hours of the morning, what we thought might have been a Legal High. In the end it worked out better than expected and those involved not only survived to tell the tale but are now looking forward to the sixteen sessions that will follow, bringing us to the end of winter.
Perhaps one of the more startling observations was that we only had six overnight guests (nine turned up for the evening meal) and we had braced ourselves for receiving up to twenty. There is no doubt there are many more sleeping rough on the streets of Southend, reckoned to be over fifty. So why did they not come to us? As I was pondering this question while shopping in the town centre this afternoon, I came across a rough sleeper, who I couldn’t quite place, sitting in a doorway just off the High Street. I asked him why he did not come to the night shelters, especially when it turned out he was sleeping in one of those awful places that rough sleepers often end up in, and in this cold weather. His answer was frank and respectful. His desire was to find work. He did drink and would want to go out for a smoke during the night and, because he respected the churches, he chose not to go into their shelters. There are no doubt other reasons and while I hear the frustration of those who don’t understand why the rough sleeper cohort sometimes fail to look a gift horse in the mouth, I am mindful of all sorts of reasons why people choose rough sleeping over something a lot nicer.
Another issue that continues to exercise my thinking is round the various stories about rough sleepers being moved on by the authorities, sometimes taking these with a pinch of salt not being cognisant of all the facts, to what some might argue is from one undesirable location to one that is even more undesirable. Recently, for example, I considered the story of the six rough sleepers camping in the Southend cliff area being served eviction notices. It so happened that one of these came along to our shelter, along with his dog. We were able to provide food and hospitality for the next two hours, before he returned to his tent on the cliffs. And what an interesting fellow he was and we had a good chat about all sorts of things. One of these was around the Southend Borough Council claim they had engaged with all six and offered them help to relocate, something our friend denied had happened.
And finally, and this will be a recurrent theme throughout the season, there is the matter of things happening in our society that should not happen because they are unjust and, while people like me try to pick up the pieces and show hospitality etc., we know full well we cannot tackle systemic failures to anywhere near the extent that is needed. One of our guests was a male, aged 20. Just over two weeks ago, his family lost their home and, if his story is to believed, the way this was handled was morally wrong, touching illegal. For two weeks he was living on the streets until picked up by some well meaning folk, who pointed him in our direction. We know that all our guests have their own story that needs hearing out and some of these are just as torrid. But we are what we are and, while there is a lot we can’t and don’t do, we do make at least some difference!