Did you realise the well dressed woman and the trendy young man stood next to you this morning at the station might be homeless? Probably not. Because often, the homeless just blend in with the crowd. Members of our community like you and me, only they don’t have a cosy home to go back to at night. Maybe they’ve had a bad relationship breakup. Lost their job. And sometimes, there’s a battle with addiction or mental health.
I’d never given it much thought. Until I started spending time with homeless people at my local Salvation Army. Last fall, my church made a call for volunteers to serve at the Redbridge Cold Weather Centre, now in its third year. The centre opens up a shelter over the cold winter months and accommodates 25 souls each night.
After speaking with my friend who had worked at the centre the previous year, I knew I needed to get involved. There was some paperwork to fill in and I attended a training session. The following week, our shifts began.
My station on most nights. Registering the guests and coordinating. Anyone seeking shelter, has been referred to us by The Welcome Centre. That way, expectations are managed and those who come to Salvation Army know they have a bed for the night. And for many, the initial step is a referral by Street Link – please check out these links – you could be able to help by letting them know about a rough sleeper.
A different kind of Christmas. For some, it was just another day. Without a doubt, a lot longed for their families, if they have one. But that day, and every other given day, we were family. We enjoyed some good food, games and a movie. Conversation.
One of our guests said – this had been his best Christmas ever. And asked if he could borrow a bible. That is what it’s all about.
On Sunday evenings we got a bit creative. An artist would come by with materials and encourage painting. There was a degree of frustration for those who wanted to paint but the hand was not connecting to the brain. There was lack of confidence, thinking “I’m not good enough at this.” But there was a sense of achievement and pride when eventually, something came together. Let me tell you, I was impressed with some of the artwork. We have some gifted souls amongst us.
There’ve been tears, there’ve been laughs. There’s been sadness, there’ve been success stories. One night, a grown man cried on my shoulder because he hadn’t seen his children in so long. The following week, he could not wait to tell me that he’d found a well paid job as a plasterer and accommodation! I saw the relief on his face and in his spirit, it was amazing! People have been reunited with their families, gone to rehab and found work. Lieutenant John Clifton of Salvation Army provided me with some figures:
136 volunteers contributed 6697 volunteer hours, an average of 49 hours each.
60 guests came through our doors: 52 male/8 female. 31 of whom had recourse to public funds. Of these, 21 moved on to a more stable situation. 1 person who had no recourse, returned to their country of origin.
These guys and gals used to be nameless faces in the street. Now, I rarely walk down the high street without bumping into at least one of them. And it is my honour to shake their hand, give ’em a hug and stop for a chat.
Over the past three months, I’ve heard a few, incredible stories. The lady whose husband died, leaving her to fend for herself and her two sons. The lad who was on top of the world, working at the 2012 Olympics. The woman who sleeps in the library during the day. The man who’s been homeless for 28 years.
I wish there was no need for night shelter but the nature of real life means there is. I’ll be there again, this winter. Serving God, serving the homeless and making new friends.