Reflections of a homeless night shelter manager

While I blog about all sorts of things, especially these days based on news generated as a result of Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the US presidency, I am more reticent when it comes to stuff I am doing and I try to avoid talking about family and friends, but sometimes exceptions can be made in order to let folk know about something that truly matters that happens to be close to my heart …

ferndale1

setting for “my” homeless night shelter

This is my fourth year managing a homeless night shelter, part of the Southend Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) scheme, which runs for 17 weeks during the winter period with me doing one of the nights. It is a surreal experience; it can be taxing and harrowing; but always there is a sense that we can make a difference. It can also be a lot of fun and one where one participates in real life situations. I am moved by the quality and commitment of the volunteers: from all walks of life, young and old, black and white, able and disabled, gay and straight, male and female, religious and non-religious, left and right (politically), rich and poor, all for the right reasons – to make a positive difference in the lives of folk who might otherwise be sleeping rough on the streets. All who help at CWNS are volunteers, and not only are they not paid, they often give up a lot in order to volunteer. We can’t solve many problems around being homeless, especially the lack of decent, affordable accommodation, but we can provide hospitality, including a safe, comfortable, friendly place where folk eat and sleep and are looked after over a 13 hour period.

The guests are a mixed bunch and really do represent a wide cross section of the wider community. They become homeless for a variety of reasons and all have stories to tell, often quite revealing and often coupled with a sense of sadness. Some of my most riveting conversations and profoundest insights have come as a result of talking to a homeless person. All are characters in their own right and range from those who are incredibly grateful and would be the sort of guest anyone would love to have in their home to those who are anything but (some can present a challenge to even the most skilled among us and sadly there are some we have to exclude from our shelters), often as a result of things like alcohol addiction and mental health issues and frequently carrying the baggage coming from a relationship breakdown, victims of abuse, loss of job or home and other factors one would much rather avoid. My approach is to be robust, reading the riot act if called for, and to offer Benedictine hospitality. Our job is not to judge but show kindness (sometimes including a good dose of “tough love”) recognizing our limitations and trying to operate in a peaceful environment where the health and safety of guests and volunteers is of paramount importance. While there is sadness when we see people return to the streets, sometimes getting worse, often we see people get to a better place!

Incredibly time flies; we are now two thirds into this season; it all comes to an end at the end of next month, to start again (probably) around the end of November. No-one should under estimate the amount of effort, guile and good will is needed to run such an operation, possible because of a fantastic team of troops working on the front line with others supporting in the background. I am just happy I can still help. Sadly, the prospect of working ourselves out of a job seems unlikely as we continue to see people end up on the streets, including many who one would not have expected this to happen to … but for a change in circumstances. The poor (or in this case the homeless) we will always have with us, as Jesus said. But we do what we do in good faith, trying not to be ostentatious in the process. I may well continue to pontificate over the great events happening in the world, but at least I can do something useful now!

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