In March 2010 we joined C4WS - the Community of Camden Churches Cold Weather Shelter - to provide accommodation for homeless people. A  group of volunteers led by Bill Saunders now provides dinner, bed and breakfast in the Church Hall every Friday from January until Easter.


Bill writes

From January until Easter this year we will again provide dinner, accommodation and then breakfast for 14 homeless people on Friday evenings through to Saturday mornings. 

 We do this through an organisation called C4ws, in collaboration with about a dozen Churches in Camden. C4ws finds our guests through a number of welfare agencies, and also helps the majority of our guests move on to more permanent accommodation and often to find employment as well. Guests join the Shelter and go to whichever Church is hosting, every night of the week, and stay until their lives are secure enough for them to manage on their own. This ideally takes about a month, but in some cases guests manage to turn around their lives in a few days, due to a couple of good nights' sleep and regular meals. Guests who have more complex difficulties might stay with the shelter for two months, or more. 

To have to sleep in a different building every night might not sound secure, but the shelter runs on a regular if informal routine, dinner, lights out, and breakfast at the same time everywhere, and as they are in a group  the guests form a strong bond among themselves. 

 In the very easy atmosphere of the Shelter it is easy to forget how dreadful the alternative is, until a guest will occasionally remind a volunteer that without the Shelter he or she would be literally sleeping on the pavement. 

 The Shelter depends on volunteers, it only employs two people and one part time assistant, and all three are on temporary contracts.  It is highly impressive what the three of them manage to accomplish. Last season the Shelter was open from the 1st of November to the 31st of March, the first year it has covered five months. During that time it has hosted 85 guests in all. 

 All the guests are in very difficult circumstances, and some cannot help but bring their troubles with them, none are a burden, and many are a great pleasure to meet. From last season I recall Mick and Mia, a young couple, who lived through the heavy snow falls of last autumn in a tent surreptitiously pitched in Regents Park. Then there are guests like Fikru, a middle aged man from Eritreia, who always arrived and left with a warm smile and a firm hand-shake and accepted all hospitality with as much politeness as his limited English allowed and otherwise appeared to sit quietly. It was only the week after he had left us for better things that I realised how much he had ever so subtly done  to raise the spirits of the younger guests. 

 As Church co-ordinator I have also been delighted, not to mention grateful, to see one or two local people who are not regular worshippers become involved in the Shelter. If you feel you would like to be involved with next season's shelter in any way please get in touch with me, via e-mail:mailto:exesor@yahoo.com.  

 




Ruth Godwin has been one of the regular volunteers, and wrote an account of her experience in our first year. We hope it gives you an idea of what's involved in volunteering, and perhaps motivate you to help.

Touching, moving, interesting, heartbreaking, salutary, finding an adjective that describes being part of the project that we took on for four Fridays in March just can't be done - they all apply and more.  It was certainly a privilege, and as the coordinators who came to talk about it with us said it would be, it was very enjoyable.

We gave up to 15 homeless people shelter in our Hall, a bed, dinner and breakfast and somewhere to relax and chat, to us and especially to each other.  These guests were special as they have got in touch or been referred to this splendid project which coordinates advice that they need about job-seeking, finding somewhere to live, finding medical attention, counselling if necessary, and, no doubt, more than I know about.  They've agreed to follow the few rules and to take up leads that are given to them, and they get told to move on when they do not. I visited another shelter and saw someone, who had been abusive, reminded that he was no longer welcome.  Someone who we met did not return to our Hall as he had, I was told, sadly, concluded that he could not cope with the no booze rule.  Camden churches have taken on the task, in turns, of providing shelter during the coldest months. It often takes some weeks to find housing for people.  I knew of two who were found a place in a hostel during our stint.

 We took on shifts and I will describe them here so that you can read how we did it, and decide what you can do yourself when we do it again!

Put simply, the shifts are: setting up, cooking, welcoming and serving the meal, entertaining, sitting up during the night,  making breakfast and clearing up. Before we began, of course, Bill Saunders ran a very successful money raising campaign, and we appealed for bedding.  I am sure that you contributed to one or both of those.

 The setting up goes on between 5 o'clock and 7oclock. It involves getting out the mattresses and bedding, making the beds (trying as hard as possible to match the linen to make it more appealing), making sure everyone has a good towel and an extra blanket.  We put beds for the women on the stage and were able to provide the downstairs loo and basins so that they had a private area behind the curtains.  We made sure that the toilet facilities were clean and put in extra towels, soap etc.

 We had tables laid in the centre of the hall (using St Mary's lovely collection of table cloths) and, once again, made an effort to coordinate the cutlery, provided serviettes, put flowers on the table, in other words whatever we could to make it welcoming and cosy.  We put out a table with the urn, coffee, tea, fruit tea, hot chocolate and biscuits or cake so the guests could help themselves  when they arrived and indeed whenever they wanted.  We had another table with gifts of soap and shampoo as well as newspapers and a chess set.  (We'll try to provide other board games next time.)

 The project coordinator, a social worker, arrives for a volunteers' meeting and briefing at 7.00 and stays to register the guests and make sure all is well before leaving.  Guests did get lost trying to find us.  Bill had to go up to the Village to rescue some lost girls one time and another, Father Guy and a guest went as far as King's Cross to find someone.  They did. 

 Whilst this was going on the cooks were working away in their own kitchens and bringing the main course and dessert over.  We had a bit of trouble getting the ovens in the Hall kitchen right and water for veg to boil, but we have cracked that one now!  Cooks worked alone, in families and people working together - any combination can be worked out.  As I wasn't one of the cooks, it won't be boasting to say that they provided the most delicious meals and, mainly, the guests said so too.

 I know this because volunteers and guests sit down together.  Some knew each other so well and were so involved in discussion that it felt intrusive to join them: others seemed happy to have us with them and chat about their week or about the food!  One of our, the volunteers, rules is that we never pry.  We chat to people just as if we had met in the John Lewis café.  But we do listen when they speak with us. As we got to know them over the month it was not intrusive to ask how things were going.  Some are working.  One was rehearsing for a gig at the Round House.

 After dinner it was clear up and wash up time or showing a film or TV for we volunteers. The guests watched the film, played chess, read, chat. I noticed that several settled into their beds almost straight away.  There was a very pleasant atmosphere. I nipped behind the curtain to say good bye to the women and was so pleased to find a real girls' dorm up there among the nursery school equipment - pink pyjamas, hair brushing, face creaming: what they needed.

 Those two shifts were what I could manage.  I left about 9.00 and when he could, Father Guy, gave me a lift home.  But the job carried on.  There were two saints who stayed overnight, at least one awake.  In the morning the breakfast shift came in and cooked what sounds like a magnificent breakfast.  The guests had what they could manage and left by 9.00 so that the team could put away all the bedding and leave the Hall and facilities how they would want to find them.

 The guests were all friendly and appreciated what we laid on.  A few were picky about their food.  I don't mind that as for some people it may be a way of maintaining their self respect in an awful situation.  Others had to be careful for religious reasons.  We tried to do the right thing for everyone.  A few wanted to talk with us about their situation.  When I left on the last evening, as I said goodbye and good luck several made a point of a special thank you. One, who had told us his story said that being able to use the Shelter meant that he had been able to relax, get sleep and even put on a little weight, and could feel that he was getting his thinking processes back.  When I told him that I wished we could do more his words were "Oh don't think like that, you've all done so much for us".   Another had told me that he was really very worried that the shelter was coming to an end.  I wonder how they are all doing now.