2017 Church Winter Night Shelters – the story so far

Note: what was intended as a snapshot of my experience managing a homeless night shelter has turned into a reflective diary that I regularly update as the season progresses …

We are well into week 2 of 17 of the 2017 Church Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) and so far things are going remarkably smoothly. Usually it begins slow as numbers of guests being accommodated are low and then things pick up as word gets around etc. but this year we really are hitting the ground running as numbers are full from the outset (Friday we accommodated 22 overnight sleepers, when our stated maximum is 20).  And we have not turned away any yet who meet the minimal criteria for entry, although it begs the question should demand increase. As I write, I see steady downpour of snow. No doubt the cold weather we are seeing is a big factor.

Reading reports from other shelters things seem to be going remarkably smoothly with relatively few major incidents to report. Given the vulnerability of our guests and the harrowing circumstances many find themselves in it is almost inevitable there will altercations and upsets but these have been few and far between, although for those of us who volunteer to help it is difficult not to be upset when contemplating what it is some of our guests go through, who often show remarkable stoicism. As I have said before running shelters (there is one for each day of the week) is no small undertaking, even given we don’t have the resource to carry on throughout the year. But thanks to our amazing volunteers (some of which are not churchy folk) who go out of their way to be helpful, we do what we do and make at least some small difference.

If there is any doubt there is a need it is worth checking out the various soup kitchens (One Love – Monday and Thursday, Homeless Hub – Tuesday and Street Spirit – Saturday) who keep busy at the times the shelters are running. Visiting last night I was struck by the number using our services, many of which are genuinely homeless, a number I did not recognize (suggesting that while some are taken off the streets even more are added). It all points to the fact: even with HARP and CWNS combined – there are still homeless folk who will be sleeping rough tonight. We are blessed in Southend, for there are many good hearted people who out of compassion want to help. But the needs of not enough suitable accommodation and lack of support services to help deal with many of the things homeless face remain.

As one friend has often reminded me: we are where we are and we do what we can do, even though we know it is never enough. As for me, I take a hard nose attitude in order to carry on, realizing there are unmet needs wherever I look and I try to focus on doing my bit as it were and encouraging others to do theirs, in the hope that we can overcome the scourge of homelessness. On a practical note, shelters operate because of volunteers prepared to fit in with where there are gaps (and one is the need for those to stay overnight with the guests – understandably the least social slot but in reality the one where there is least to do). Another is: while I could easily go down the list of shelters and when / where they operate, people who stay at the shelters need to go through HARP – and there are good reasons for this, and as I told one guest – not liking HARP is not an excuse. And can I say, without want to offend, while it great people want to help at Christmas time, our bigger need is for the rest of the year and for more people that consistently do what needs to be done.

Like with advent calendars, I am peeling off the labels in my mind – two CWNS sessions down and fifteen to go (and yes when managing such an operation on a voluntary basis, it does tend to take over one’s life) – and it is a long haul with folk tired at the end. But I like to think it is all worthwhile. It is not about religion; rather it is about humanity – and the thought that by continuing to offer the services we do, we help to meet a need and we do make a difference.

Update 23/12/2017: We have just completed week 4 of 17 of the Ferndale CWNS. Whereas the first three sessions were relatively peaceful even if intense because of the need we serve, this fourth session was anything but and was more than a little fraught due to our dealing with a variety of challenging guest behaviour, some of it fueled by alcohol and Christmas craziness. But we survived and came through it all intact despite having to deal with a number of wicked situations. There is no doubt the need among homeless folk is as great as ever it has been. Without blowing our own trumpets, there is the satisfaction of knowing we are making a difference.

Update 30/12/2017: Funny how things can change hugely in a matter of a week. Last week was particularly challenging because of having to deal with a number of what appeared unrelated but were likely related assorted behavioral issues, any of which can and did drastically affect the tone of the session and this week none to speak of despite there being a huge underlying need and as I discovered a drug culture affecting some guests and some serious not entirely resolved relationship issues. Sadly, we had to impose a temporary ban on some offenders and that helped. Mercifully, it was a peaceful and productive session and one where we did some serious good. Highlight for me was one particularly vulnerable guest asking for prayer. The show continues and we are almost a third of the way through the season. We are blessed having a fantastic team.

Update 06/01/18: I have to confess it was with a degree of trepidation that I faced doing night’s session, given in the previous two nights the shelters were disrupted because of in the main to some challenging guest behaviour (always a possibility given the circumstances, and that despite every good intention and practice to handle all situations). But another session is over and we are over a third of the way into the season, which I would put in the mostly peaceful and productive category. Numbers of overnight stayers were down compared to previous weeks and our having as a collective told certain guests they were not welcome to attend for a period due to unacceptable behaviour (and has an important bearing on our delivering the service we want and the well being of guests and volunteers), which all had an important bearing on the success of the night.  Talking to individual guests, it was clear the needs were as great as ever and while we cannot purport to do more than scratch the surface, in providing this service we find we do make a difference. It is humbling to know guests value what we do and when volunteers (including new ones) give up much to help.

Update 13/01/18: 7 down, 10 to go! I love doing this but also look forward to the end. Given some altercations earlier in the week and we were down on evening volunteers I was a bit apprehensive – but always the adage “hope for the best but prepare for the worse” applies. The session turned out to be remarkably peaceful and productive although when getting to talk with guests I am always struck that despite the struggles faced due to being homeless and to do with mental health, alcohol dependency etc. most remain stoic and optimistic and there were several positive exchanges. It was good to be reminded while it doesn’t appear we do that much, we do make a difference; the example given is a number of our previous guests have been accommodated and moving on with their lives.

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