CHURCHES are opening their doors at night this winter in response to the rising number of homeless people sleeping rough.
More than 2000 Church of England congregations will be running or supporting night shelters during the coldest months of the year.
In one ecumenical scheme in Portsmouth, Open Church, seven churches will each open as a night shelter one day a week, to offer a full seven-day rotating service.
The churches are working with the Hampshire homelessness charity the Society of St James, which will link the churches with 12 homeless people to be given Open Church shelter for eight weeks in total.
The project has doubled in length since it ran for the first time last year. Its organiser, Lorna Sandland, said: “We committed ourselves last winter to a limited pilot scheme, giving a hot meal and a bed to the same ten vulnerable people every night for four weeks.
“Because our guests had the basics of food and accommodation sorted out, they could flourish in a calmer atmosphere, build relationships, and reflect on how to move on from their circumstances.”
A spokesperson for the diocese of Portsmouth explained that the small number of people taken in was a reason for the project’s success, as the churches could spend a longer period forming relationships with the individuals.
The Portsmouth churches were inspired by a similar project in Horsham, in Chichester diocese. Initiatives of this kind can be found around the UK.
Volunteers in Portsmouth were trained last week in preparation for the first shelter to open on 7 January. The scheme needs at least ten helpers each night to transport the beds, provide food, set up the shelter, and then clear it away in the morning. Some volunteers must also stay overnight with the guests.
Mick Walters, the administrator of one church which is taking part in the scheme, St Simon’s, Southsea, said: “The difficulty is finding people to sleep overnight”; but, in general, it had been “surprisingly easy” to find willing volunteers.
The church, he explained, had covered the extra running costs incurred from its own budget, but fund-raising had provided the money for food, bedding, and volunteer training. “The money seemed to come fairly readily,” he said.
Speaking from his own experience as a volunteer last year, Mr Walters said: “I took part because I wanted to get people off park benches and out of shop doorways. I was personally a bit disappointed, as we didn’t get people off the streets: our guests were just transferred from homeless shelters.
“But this did make me realise that some shelters can be unpleasant places; so sometimes people would prefer to be sleeping rough. At least we were to give a much better environment to our guests.”
A similar project runs in Manchester, where the Greater Together Manchester (GTM) night shelter provides 12 beds every night for six months of the year. A second shelter is to start running later this month, funded through the Mayor of Great Manchester’s scheme “A Bed Every Night”. Nine of the ten venues used for the two shelters are C of E buildings.
Lily Axworthy, the development officer for GTM, a joint venture of the Church Urban Fund and the diocese of Manchester, said: “Last year, people were staying in the shelter for a shorter period of time, because their ‘move on’ was managed more quickly. However, the number of people sleeping rough has carried on increasing.”
A report from the homelessness charity Crisis, in April, estimated that 4751 people were sleeping rough in England last year: a figure that has more than doubled since 2010. The executive director of the Church Homeless Trust, Miriam Morris, said that these figures were “only the tip of the iceberg”: the method used in counts such as this meant that not all those who slept rough were included.
Ms Morris said that 5000 people used church homeless shelters last year, and that even more were expected this year. “Churches are keeping [rough-sleepers] alive.”
The state is required to provide shelter for rough-sleepers if temperatures are below zero for three consecutive nights. Therefore, local authorities, who were once “snotty” towards church provision, are now asking churches to “step in”, Ms Morris said. “This is a crisis. . . Churches can provide a very, very valuable service.”
The Church Homeless Trust provides a leaflet which is available both online and as a physical copy, on request. It advises churches what they can do to support homeless people in their area better.
Six suggestions for helping rough-sleepers as temperatures drop
AS THE number of those sleeping rough continues to rise, more and more Church of England congregations are thinking about what they can do to try to alleviate the crisis.
Here are six ways in which congregations can make a difference:
- Look at what your area needs. There is no point in starting up a soup run if there is already plentiful provision in your area. Ask your local authority if you are unsure what would be most useful.
- Donate money. While it is generally not advised by homeless charities to give directly to those sleeping rough, organisations such as the Churches Homeless Trust use donations to help people get out of homelessness: they pay for deposits, or buy things such as work clothes or bikes that give people the facilities they need to gain employment.
- If your area needs it, set up or financially support a homeless shelter. This could be as an individual church, or in collaboration with other churches, as cities such as Portsmouth have done. Take advice from your local authority, and consult organisations such as Housing Justice to ensure that everything is set up correctly.
- Encourage your congregation to befriend homeless people, and offer to go with those living on the street to the council to find out what support they can get. Often people who are sleeping rough can feel too isolated and intimidated to ask for support.
- Put up posters in areas where rough sleepers will see them, detailing the local services available to homeless people.
- Order some “How to help homeless people” leaflets from the Churches Homeless Trust, and distribute them at services so that people are aware of the best ways to help homeless people.