Every year between November and April, St Columba’s Church of Scotland in London opens its doors to 35 homeless guests one night a week in winter. We also serve an evening meal for many more. For the last 5 years, I have been volunteering with this winter night shelter project.
The scheme is run by the charity Glass Door, with St Columba’s being one of seven churches in the circuit. Each church provides the volunteers and the sleeping space for a different night of the week. When I first started volunteering there was just one circuit; now there are three.
We usually arrive between six and seven pm, cook a meal and serve it to our guests. Glass Door provides the overnight workers, so volunteers are finished by 9.30pm.
Why do I do it? I was originally inspired by a particularly fiery sermon one morning the contents of which I have forgotten, but the message I took to be something along the lines “it’s no good being angry about the world, just go out and do something; small differences matter”.
I keep on doing it for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I work in an environment where my entire day is spent around people who live in a bubble – a comfortable existence where everyone is pretty wealthy. It is such a big difference to be out in the real world. Secondly, it’s a great charity and I have seen it grow.
When you see the difference it makes – guests who no longer turn up because they found accommodation – when you see the caseworkers hard efforts paying off, it’s hard to not to feel an inner warmth.
Thirdly, there is great fellowship with the other volunteers; it’s a total mix of age groups, from young people finishing school to Chelsea pensioners. The latter are often the most energetic.
Lastly, I volunteer with Glass Door’s shelter at St Columba’s because I enjoy it. I enjoy talking to the guests, finding out about them, and just listening to the banter. There’s obviously a protocol about not being intrusive about how they got into the situation they are in, but it’s just about chatting and having a normal conversation.
This ability to have a normal conversation is probably the most important thing we as volunteers can offer. I can see how being on the streets and being constantly ignored and looked down upon, it’s easy to loose esteem. This can lead to a self-reinforcing spiral that makes homelessness so devastating. So being invited into someone’s home (we refer to the Church as our ‘home’), the chatting and social interaction is as important as the food and shelter. This is why treating guests with respect is the most important ‘golden rule’.
The best night is the Burns Supper that we do. We cook up a load of McSweens haggis, have a piper and read out Burns. The Eastern European guests are a bit bemused, but love the spiciness of the haggis. It turns out the differences between are not so great, whether you hail from London, Krakow or Glasgow.
By Will Hamlyn, volunteer at Glass Door
Glass Door Homeless Charity, London
About Glass Door
Glass Door is receiving a Go For It Continuation Grant for their Supported Night Shelter project. They provide night shelters and day centres where rough sleepers can find safety, meals and specialist support, so they can work towards ending their homelessness.
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