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Charity urges local churches to assist homeless in cold weather

February 10 2011
Left to right: Mark Brennan, Sally Leigh, Paul Reily and Paul Sorenson Left to right: Mark Brennan, Sally Leigh, Paul Reily and Paul Sorenson
B&Bs are very expensive, so local authorities should warm to the idea of winter shelters.


In December, the national Christian charity Housing Justice (HJ) launched 'Shelter in a Pack' to advise churches how to provide basic winter accommodation. The pack explains everything someone planning a shelter would need to think about; it is upfront about possible obstacles and provides practical solutions. It was put together with the help from organisers of established London winter night shelters, the majority of which are run by at least seven churches in the same borough. Each night of the week, a different church provides accommodation, hot drinks, washing facilities, company and - at some shelters - a meal. Several have been in operation for over 10 years and provide a crucial safety net to those who would otherwise have to sleep rough.

The aim of the meeting at Carrs Lane, Birmingham, was to answer concerns and provide advice, guidance and the offer of ongoing support to anyone interested in establishing a church-based winter shelter.

The meeting was attended by representatives from Cannock Winter Shelter committee, West Bromwich Community Church, Cotteridge Church URC, Moseley Wesleyan Holiness Church, the Reach Out Network, The Glebe Centre, SIFA Fireside, Birmingham City Mission and Homeless Link.

On the panel led by Sally Leigh, London and Shelters Co-ordinator at HJ, were members of the London Winter Shelter Forum who are also trustees of winter shelters.

Sally Leigh explained why shelters are important: "Rough sleeping is like being in a deep freeze - the instinct of having to survive takes over. Winter shelters mean that people can come in and thaw, and address where they're at again."

Rev Paul Reily, from the Forest Churches Emergency Night Shelter, advised attendees to start small: "If you only have three people who want to set up a shelter, you need to draw in some more and get a range of different skills. But don't wait until you've got everything sorted, because by then it'll be the summer holidays!"

Sally Leigh added: "First, look into the situation in your local community. What are the public, private and voluntary organisations who are involved in helping the homeless already doing?"

A Cannock Winter Shelter committee member reported that some local churches had said their halls were being used for other purposes. Mark Brennan, of the Caris Islington Shelter, said that as most shelters use the halls only between 6pm and 8am, they could be incorporated around other church activities. Cotteridge Church URC was worried about storing larger items such as beds, but the panel responded that accommodation could be basic and that some shelters used airbeds.

One member of the audience said the ministers she had spoken to were worried about people turning up intoxicated or being aggressive. HJ responded that the policies and procedures outlined in the pack would help lessen those fears. Most shelters used a referral process rather than an 'open door' system.

Asked about the cost of setting up a shelter, Sally Leigh replied: "Barnet Winter Shelter started with £5,000 from the Church Urban Fund and still has £2,000 left - a lot of their supplies are donated."

Cannock Winter Shelter thought they had a venue but were worried about planning permission. Revd Reily replied: "We didn't ask for planning permission - we just did it! And if you use church halls, you don't normally need it." Housing Justice offered to talk to local churches in Cannock and Neelam Sunder, from Homeless Link, offered to talk to the local authority. "They should have a cold weather protocol," she said. "'Additional' and 'temporary' are the words to use. If the temperature drops below zero on three consecutive nights, any homeless person is entitled to accommodation. B&Bs are very expensive and councils have had their budgets cut, so local authorities should warm to the idea of winter shelters."

Paul Atkins, from the Reach Out Network, confirmed that several Birmingham ministers were interested in setting up their own Winter Shelter Forum and would be arranging a first meeting soon.

You can get the 'Shelter in a Pack' from Housing Justice (020 7920 6600; www.housingjustice.org.uk).

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