I have just come off my latest stint at one of the (7) church winter night shelters (CWNS) and given we have only one left (out of 17 Friday night sessions from November to March) I thought I would shoot from the hip and say what I think in the hope it will do some good, before catching up on some sleep, or maybe not – there is the England Wales rugger match to watch, tasks to do and a soup kitchen to visit. The first thing to say, I am still here, no-one has died and there have been no major altercations. Considering the 20 overnight guests and 13 for meal only guests we entertained, with a plethora of needs between them, I reckon they saw their experience in an overall positive light, even if apprehensive for the future.
One of the reasons for posting now on the subject is that realistically after next Friday the 20 overnight guests plus at least twice that number of rough sleepers around town that don’t engage with the CWNS program for one reason or another, will be doing just that – sleeping on the street, because there isn’t accommodation to replace what we are providing, bar a miracle or something exceptional that I hadn’t reckoned with – and of course that is worrying! We started off back in November relatively quiet – before Christmas we were getting half our specified maximum (of 20) guests staying with us, but for the past few weeks we, along with the other shelters, have been at full capacity and, moreover, we were seeing many new faces coming through our doors – from many different situations.While there is a lot we can’t do, like find permanent accommodation and sort out many of the life issues of our guests, and the gaps when it comes to services providing appropriate help are still big, what we do do is important and is worth doing and persisting with.
It will take some weeks for all this to sink in and fully adapt to life post-CWNS before thinking about night shelters again for this coming November – if indeed it happens. Whether it does or not, and whether my shelter puts itself forward for doing it, again are questions that need answering. There is no doubt it all is a major commitment and always there is room for more people to become committed volunteers. What seems evident from where I stand is that the challenge of needing to provide basic accommodation to the homeless isn’t going to go away anytime soon (if at all), despite all the other significant help out there and a good deal of it involving joined up working and, if anything, if trends we are seeing are anything to go by, it is likely to increase. So what is to happen to our guests, and what ought we be doing – these are the big questions.
I should say first of all that it has been a privilege to have been involved in the CWNS program again this year. I continue to learn so much. Then there is the feel good factor that comes from realizing one has made a difference although, more importantly, having effected positive outcomes. While the amount of time and effort needed cannot be under-estimated, I would like to think that overall it has been a worthwhile undertaking. This is based on anecdotal feedback from our guests who tell us we have helped and have made a real difference, with some moving to a better place in themselves and finding permanent accommodation and some not moving on because of things like alcohol addiction. As for continuing in like manner for the whole year round, that is a lovely idea but speaking for myself and gauging the vibes from some of the other volunteers involved in the program, we are tired, and with all good intentions the end can’t come soon enough for some of us, albeit with more than a tinge of sadness given our relationships with our guests and a real sense that we are leaving unfinished business behind us.
It has been a roller coaster journey these past 16 weeks. At one extreme we have seen folk being ok and with it one minute and a few minutes later being completely out of it and even near to death – because they have taken a legal high – a sadly all too recurring theme. Then there are the folk that enter the shelter frightened and apprehensive but because they have been treated with the dignity and sensitivity that is appropriate they leave feeling they can face the world and deal with the unknown, like not knowing where they will stay the next night and all that involves. While there have been some not so nice guests, most are no better or worse than anyone else one might meet in life and some even better and with remarkable stories and insights and values that I have found to be such a blessing. Also the guests cover a pretty comprehensive range of human experience, and some of it is fascinating. As for the volunteers, they are the backbone of the whole operation. In the main they have contributed well and fitted in. They too come from all backgrounds, and together bring a wide range of skills and perspectives. As for religion, some are very religious and some not.
But in a week’s time all this will be over for a minimum of eight months, but life will be going on with, sadly, many of our guests having unresolved issues, not least not having a safe place they can stay and call their own. This is not the time to philosophise or pontificate necessarily, although telling it as it is a useful exercise if only to get more people exercised to get these people to a better place, not just accommodation wise but with all aspects of life. To this end we must strive. Hopefully others will join us in our crusade.