This was the fourth winter shelter set up in Bexley and totally different from the previous 3 years.
It all started in September, with the team contacting the 200 odd volunteers from the 2019 Shelter; however we only received a positive response from 120 people. So in November we had a big push, which included me and Mark Cocklin speaking after each Mass one weekend at St Stephen’s.
We managed to get the numbers up, thanks to a couple of our own parishioners, but they were desperate for a Team Leader for the Sunday night shift (10pm – 6.30am) at Our Lady of the Angels in Erith. As I don’t normally work on Mondays, I volunteered to cover this role, together with my normal Thursday evening shift at Trinity Church in Bexleyheath.
I must admit I didn’t realise how hard the night shift was going to be, i.e. staying awake for 8 hours, however I had a couple of great volunteers with me and we did have opportunities for a little shut eye after our weekly catch up, games etc. The Thursday evening (6.30-10.15pm) shifts were easier as there was more interaction with the guests and other volunteers, i.e. my quizzes and games, plus the normal tasks that had to be performed.
So, why was this year different?
In the past we had on average 8-12 guests every night, people we got to know and built up relationships with, however by the end of the 3 month period, only approx 4 would have been housed, mainly down to the individuals not making a big effort unfortunately, which was normally linked to their mental health issues or addictions. Also, half the guests had been homeless for a long period, and were used to sleeping rough on the streets, or on public transport when possible.
This time we had a couple of old faces, but the majority were new, mainly young men (aged 20-30 years old) who had been homeless for a short period of time, i.e. less than 6 months. Most were sofa surfing and had the right paperwork in place: Birth Certificate/Passport, Bank Account, Benefits statement … all the requirements for renting a room or flat.
So with the help of the wonderful team at Cornerstone, we have managed to house nearly 10 guests this year during the 3 months (at the time of writing this article) which has meant a smaller group of guests staying for dinner and bed for the night, I would say on average 5-6.
Even with the big change this year I have still enjoyed volunteering at the shelter, despite my lack of beauty sleep on a Sunday night, which also impacted my weekly badminton sessions!
It was nice to catch up with some old faces, both guests and volunteers, to meet new guests and volunteers, to have the banter, a wonderful 2 course meal every Thursday evening, playing games and having a quiz or two. Together with the knowledge I have been able to help some of our local residents get off the streets for the 3 coldest months of the year, by just doing what I enjoy in life … mixing and talking to different people.
It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are from, or who we pray to, if at all … everyone deserves a safe place to sleep at night in this modern world of ours.
I’m sure there will be a Bexley Winter Shelter 2021 and I hope by reading my article you will be encouraged to join us at whatever location, doing whatever shift, either once a week or once a fortnight … every little helps, a large local store reminds us 🙂.