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Focus: Gimme Shelter

November 01 2015
A mat on the floor and a blanket – it's basic but better than the streets. © Patrick Gorman A mat on the floor and a blanket – it's basic but better than the streets. © Patrick Gorman
As shelters gear up for another winter, we find they often offer a lifeline.

“There’s a very important distinction between being a guest at a shelter project and being a client or a service user in the rest of the sector, which implies a professional relationship focusing on people’s problems,” explains Mark Brennan, a shelter coordinator at Housing Justice.

“That’s great, but what the shelters are offering is a chance to be a guest. It’s about inviting people in as you would invite a guest into your own home.”

Right now, winter night shelters are getting back into gear as another season starts. The venues are often churches or mosques, temples, synagogues and community centres, but most welcome guests and volunteers regardless of their religious ideology.

Facilities available range from little more than a mat and sleeping bag, to full cooking and washing facilities on-site. And although winter shelters are not intended to be a long-term solution to homelessness, they can be an important step to improving guests’ quality of life.

In London, each borough has a different maximum length of stay, which could be a few days (while people wait for more secure housing) or the full season, running through until next March. They also work on a rotation system, with each shelter allocated a specific day of the week and guests moving around depending on which shelter is operational that night.

“It’s the circuit model that’s proven to be incredibly successful,” says Brennan. “A venue takes a certain night in a week in any given local authority and they all work together. The whole point is we’re trying to create these spaces where the clinical and the relational come together, because that’s how you get the best outcomes for everyone involved.”

Not everyone agrees that winter shelters are the most valuable form of community outreach. Crispin Green, an advice worker at the Robes Project, which runs a winter night shelter, says many branches of the sector argue that winter shelters aren’t well equipped enough to do the job, and government funds for tackling homelessness should be increased in order to eradicate the need for winter shelters, which rely on volunteers.

Green argues: “The way we operate should be seen as a complement to other services. The winter shelters aren’t discriminating or putting down boundaries and borderlines, saying who they will or won’t help. We see people coming from outside London, the rest of Europe, asylum seekers, overstayers who have got into trouble – people who can’t be helped by Council-based services.”

Where possible, winter shelters work alongside other services to help guests with debt advice, mediation, future accommodation and other needs. Last year, more than a third of winter shelter guests moved on to other accommodation, including council housing, hostels and private rentals.

The problem is not just that other services underestimate the importance of the shelters, but that until recently some were unaware they even existed. “I didn’t know about winter shelters really until I came into the work myself,” says Green. “I didn’t know the lengths to which many churches and volunteers will go to in order to operate these projects in the winter. Some of them have been going for a long time without other services being aware of them.”

Crucially, winter shelters provide a sense of community and a safe space to literally get people off the street, accommodating as many rough sleepers as possible, particularly when the temperatures drop below zero.

Karen had lived in Hackney for over 30 years, but when her husband died she found herself suffering with depression and sciatica, unable to pay the bills and eventually sleeping on the street. She was referred to a winter shelter by a key worker. “When she told me I had a place I couldn’t believe it,” says Karen. “I was so excited but I just couldn’t get my hopes up. I kept worrying it would fall through. I only let myself get happy about it when I knew it was secure.”

She was able to make friends at the Hackney Winter Night Shelter and build a sense of security and community.

She left determined to put her PhD to use and get a job, like the people she saw going to work in the morning and felt envious of.

“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t been referred here,” she says. “To anyone thinking of supporting this shelter, I’d say please do it. Let us have a voice, let us have a chance.”

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You’ve been turned away by your local authority. So how do you access a winter shelter?

Of the 24 shelters open last year, 21 were located in London, accommodating more than 1,300 guests. More than half were aged between 26 and 49, although people of all ages are welcome.

The method for getting a spot at a winter shelter is slightly different. In Glasgow and Edinburgh, you can just turn up. In London, it’s different in every borough and for each venue; have a look at the listing section for more info.

Check whether you need to be referred – and who by. Some London boroughs such as Tower Hamlets will only take referrals from nominated centres, including Crisis Skylight and Whitechapel Mission, whereas Islington, for example, will take referrals from anywhere. In Barnet, all referrals must come from the local Homeless Action day centre.

Once you have been referred to a shelter, your needs will be assessed by a coordinator as shelters are not appropriate for everyone’s support needs.

And while all shelters have at least one volunteer on site every given night, some are able to provide substantially more support than others, for example help with mental health or addiction.