LONDON – The winter days are typically cold and dark but while most people can return to a nice warm home at the end of the day, for those living on the streets the freezing temperatures can be deadly.
There are 20 church winter shelters up and running in London but Sally Leigh says demand is outstripping supply – each of the existing shelters already has a waiting list.
"We could do with more shelters," said Leigh, London and Shelters Coordinator for Housing Justice.
"It is a directive of the Gospel that we care for the most vulnerable, the poor, the needy, the homeless."
To help more churches start up their own shelters, Housing Justice has launched a downloadable resource, "Shelter in a Pack," explaining the vital role of churches in caring for the homeless and offering practical advice about how to run a shelter.
In the cold winter months, they offer a safe and warm place where homeless people can stay for the night, enjoy a hot dinner and breakfast, and keep clean with a nice shower.
"Night shelters are a way for the church to get alongside homeless people," said Leigh. "The most important thing is that the shelter provides a place where homeless people are safe, where they won't feel threatened but can relax. Because it is not only that the streets are cold and inhospitable; they are also a dangerous place and homeless people are very likely to be attacked."
Setting up a night shelter is quite straightforward – all churches need is to be able to provide a safe space and recruit the volunteers who can commit to one night of the week.
It's a good idea for interested churches to gauge the need in their area first by contacting local homeless centers or starting up a lunch club and seeing who turns up. If they feel it might be for them, they can then pilot a night shelter for a month before fully committing to a longer-term service.
Even if churches feel they don't have the resources to run a winter shelter all by themselves, they could still help to make one happen by contributing in part. That could mean providing the volunteers to another winter shelter or offering their church hall and getting the volunteers in from another church. Alternatively, they could fundraise or send food parcels to existing winter shelters.
"It's something everyone can contribute something to," said Leigh.
It is not only that there is a strong biblical mandate for helping the homeless, the work is also deeply spiritual, she highlighted.
"The volunteers might think they are just giving someone a cup of coffee and a place to sleep but it's got real spiritual overtones," she explained. "You don't even need to mention Jesus Christ and yet the guests interpret what we are doing in very much God-like language. They talk about the house of God and the shelter being a holy place."
"It's another way to witness to people about the relevance of Christianity and the homeless people have a great respect for what the church is doing," she added. "They are able to develop trust relationships with us because they know we have no other agenda than helping people who are homeless into a fuller life."
The winter shelters attract people from all walks of life who have ended up on the streets for all sorts of reasons. Some were highly educated and previously had respectable jobs, others come from deprived backgrounds. Some people simply couldn't cope with life, others are running away from domestic or other forms of abuse in the home. Whatever the reason, it is usually a crisis of some kind that has pushed people into homelessness.
They come to the night shelters after being referred to the shelters by church lunch clubs, day centers or outreach teams.
The referral route is a way of filtering out those who have become too chaotic or violent. Although it is hard to say no to people in need, it is the only way to keep the night shelter safe for the guests and the thousands of volunteers who serve them.
"People think it's going to be violent and aggressive but the night shelters are the safest place in London because everyone is very protective of the space and if anyone does anything untoward then it gets snuffed out by the other guests and so becomes almost self-policing after a while," Leigh noted.
Some church night shelters employ a case worker to help the guests into long-term accommodation or access benefits. Others provide mentoring for months after the guests leave.
However, churches thinking about setting up a night shelter shouldn't be naïve and think that it will solve all their guests' problems, Leigh warned. Some people return year after year without any real sign of improvement in their situation. Others are beyond the point of wanting to accept solutions and reject offers of accommodation or help.
"It's not a magic solution," she said. "They don't find accommodation for everyone and you shouldn't open a shelter thinking that everyone will be housed and happy because it takes so long. But there are a significant amount of people who are able to get into accommodation and are able to sustain tenancy agreements.
"Even with those who reject help, the shelter is still worth it for them to know that people care about them and are supporting them."
With cuts to benefits and welfare, Leigh fears that even more people are going to be made homeless in the coming months. The night shelters, she said, only deal with the very thin edge of the wedge. There are many more people only just managing to stay off the streets by sleeping in people's spare rooms or on sofas but if they fall off then the church needs to be there to help them.
"We do see people arriving with just the clothes on their backs and that's all they've got in the world. We are seeing that level of destitution and it's appalling," she lamented. "But my dread is that there is an awful lot of need out there that hasn't been found yet."
On the Web: www.housingjustice.org.uk