One of my community activist activities is managing a homeless night shelter, one of seven that is spread across different churches in my town (Southend-on-Sea). I am now in my fourth year doing so. The shelters operate during the four coldest months of the year and can accommodate and give food and hospitality to 20+ homeless guests. I don’t regard it as any big deal and I don’t particularly want to broadcast the fact, other than to point this out given the context of what I am about to write, and in light of the much bigger picture.
Not so long along ago local government authorities were required to sign up to the Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP). “This guidance is designed to support Local Authorities to provide Severe Weather Emergency Protocol responses in order to prevent deaths of people sleeping rough during winter. It also covers good practice in delivering extended winter provision such as night shelters, and how these can be an opportunity to end people’s homelessness”. Practically it meant local authorities had a statutory obligation to accommodate the homeless if the temperature was expected to fall below freezing on three consecutive nights (although these days the mandatory aspect no longer applies).
In the case of the Southend Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) Program, it was as a result of the Local Council, the leading homeless charity in the town (HARP) and some of the local churches acting in unity under the Love Southend umbrella, coming together such that some of those who HARP couldn’t accommodate, because of a lack of capacity, could be in the participating churches. It has been a monumental operation and a good deal of water has gone under the bridge in the interim as well as a good many rough sleepers having been helped. Yet each year there have been many rough sleepers (no one knows how many) who have NOT been accommodated (at least for overnight) by either HARP or CWNS, and the reasons are many: failure to engage, behavioral, substance misuse, mental ill health, and with the best will in the world and despite being very flexible it is difficult to see how this is will change. One of the difficult decisions I have to make as manager is exclude such people out of consideration of the health and safety of other guests and the volunteers who give up so much in order to help.
I raise the matter, in the light of the two previous winters being relatively mild and the prediction some particularly cold spells are about to descend on us. The reality is obvious, and it is of course a world wide phenomenon especially with refugees in places like Syria, Iraq and Greece. If exposed to the cold rough sleepers are more likely to die. It is easy to succumb to the all too human reaction and place all the responsibility in the Council. Of course councils differ, and all too often we read stories of councils moving rough sleepers on and even fining them and adopting every ruse possible to hinder rather than help. Unless individuals have a special care need or are under 18, councils are not obliged to provide accommodation; many do not feel they have the resources to help.
I raise the matter, not to let anyone of the hook (for it is all our responsibilities) but to point out the fact that there will be many (no one knows how many) rough sleepers sleeping on the streets of Southend tonight (although some of those may find ways to escape from the worst of the elements). What needs saying is that ignorance is no excuse and as those who read my blogs know there are things people can do to help. While I would love there to be a safe, sheltered place for rough sleepers to go, where rules and restrictions are kept to the minimum, I understand also some of the practical difficulties. The work goes on; while campaigning and righteous indignation has a place, we all do well to do what we can to help.