The orange street lights overhead and the white headlights of oncoming cars mixed to create a sort of comforting, warm glow in the car as I drove around the ring road that night. The reality outside was starkly different though. It was still very dark and bitter cold, despite being early March. Goodness knows what it must have felt like in the dead of winter. The closer I got into the centre of the city, the more eerie it began to feel and as I pulled into the Church car park on Broad Street, I began to feel uneasy. The place was almost deserted, apart from a few cars in the car park which I presumed belonged to the volunteers I was hoping to meet. Everyone else it seemed, had long gone. Wolverhampton was empty; its many workers presumably enjoying the comfort of their homes, the warmth of their evening meals and the love of their families and friends. My husband’s last words to me as I left our house began to echo in my mind as I walked around the outside of the dark building and I admit, I glanced over my shoulder more than once to check whether I could indeed “stay safe”.
It took me two rotations of the building before I found the entrance and I only noticed that because of the small huddle of people beginning to wait outside it, sitting in the doorway with their knees to their chests, desperately trying to keep warm. I asked them politely if I was in the right place and if I’d correctly located the Emergency Night Shelter (ENS). Two of the gentlemen looked at me blankly and I realised quickly they didn’t speak English. One of the women, wrapped up in a sleeping bag with her fingerless-gloved hands folded around a paper cup, nodded politely and reassured me of my whereabouts, pointing at the key hole. I bent down to peer through it and realised that there were indeed ‘people at home’.
Upon entering the room, it became very apparent, very quickly that a “home” is exactly what was being created for the many homeless people who would be sleeping there that night. The 20 foldaway beds that filled the church basement which was housing the night shelter were clean and tidy and many of them already covered with the personal belongings of those sleeping on them, even though the “guests” were not able to enter the facility for another 45 minutes. The shelter had been open for 3 ½ weeks on the night of my visit and many of the city’s growing homeless population had been staying there from Day One. The room oozed warmth, not only in the physical temperature of the place, but also in the smiles and hugs of the volunteers who were busy laying out plates of biscuits, crisps and bottles of water and who began serving hot drinks, good advice and prayers to that night’s residents once the doors opened and they had begun to come in.
“The vision for the Emergency Night Shelter goes way beyond just providing shelter from the bad weather”, explained Jeremy Watson, coordinator of the ENS on behalf of the Churches in Wolverhampton. “Since it’s opened we’ve been able to develop genuine relationships with these people to the point that they’re no longer the nameless, faceless people sleeping in doorways. They’re our family now and we care about them.”
The issue of homelessness is a growing one nationally and nowhere is this more apparent than in Wolverhampton. There are already several organisations working to serve and care for the homeless in the city, all of which have worked together to ensure the ENS could run this winter.
“Last Summer the need for a winter night shelter was identified and our aim was to try and get it up and running for this winter, as well as trying to find pathways to help people get off the streets altogether, but the money and resource just wasn’t available. The tragic death of a homeless lady in January simply speeded things up and provided the impetus to raise the funds and find the volunteers needed to run it.”
The lady who died was found in a doorway on Queen Street right in the city centre and her death sparked a viral social media campaign headed up by Matt Lambert, a good friend of ours here at Love Black Country and a faithful servant within the Third Sector in the city. Within a few weeks, £6000 had been raised through a Just Giving page and over 30 people agreed to volunteer their time. A plan was created to open an Emergency Night Shelter for a four week trial and a new partnership between Grace Church and Tabernacle (Tab) Baptist Church saw the basement of Tab’s Broad Street site used to house the facility. Finally, Jeremy signed up to coordinate things on the ground and work with other homeless organisations to ensure things could run smoothly and safely.
And so, stood in that room on a cold Tuesday night in March, I found myself standing on what felt like holy ground. This was living proof of the best of human nature in action and it had been spearheaded by the local Church. The characters that continued to stream in through the evening were extraordinary and endearing in equal measure. There was a mixture of men and women, old and young, Brits and Eastern Europeans, with most of them at varying levels of intoxication by the time they arrived at the shelter for the night.
Some of the guests sat at the tables that had been set up on the one side of the room, chatting and sipping hot drinks. Others just went straight to their beds and began stripping off their many outer layers to dry off and warm up. One such couple, a husband and wife from Latvia, sat on their beds in a corner chatting quietly to each other. I found out from one of the volunteers that their story was a tragic one. Coming over to the UK to work on a potato farm a few years back, they had been offered a very small wage for the back-breaking work they undertook each day, most of which was taken away from them to pay for the accommodation provided with the job. When the contract ended, they were forced to leave their “home”. Jobless and with no savings to speak of, they found themselves on the streets. They have been there ever since.
There were several other stories with different beginnings and similar endings. ‘Nigel’ had been living on the streets by choice since 2002. He was well known to Jeremy and many of the other volunteers working within the city, often attending soup kitchens and day centres but refusing any real help. The week before my visit he had been badly beaten up and came into the ENS for safety. Since doing so, there had been a real breakthrough with him. The staff there were able to talk to him, get to know more about his situation and because of his new willingness to engage with people, permanent accommodation has now been found and Nigel should be moving in shortly – a real success story.
‘Dave’ was another interesting character. He and I chatted for well over 45 minutes about his own story. An open alcoholic, he walked out on his wife and children 6 years ago. “They were better off without me in their lives,” he assured me. “I was a mess.” Now, suffering with sclerosis of the liver, he has been attending the ENS to prevent his medication from being stolen while he sleeps rough by the Civic Centre. Before I left, Dave was shown how to make sure he didn’t overdose on his meds by a kind volunteer who had bought him a small pad and pen and written a tick-chart system to help him manage his daily doses.
To say I was humbled was an understatement. What I was witnessing was a level of concern that went way beyond just offering a dry, safe place to sleep for the night. This was family. And this was precisely why, despite the cheerfulness of Jeremy and the wonderfully warm greetings offered to everyone who entered the door, there was an unspoken sense of melancholy in the room. When I asked Tracy, another of the volunteers, why everyone looked so sad, she answered me with tears in her eyes.
“We’ve spent the last four weeks building relationships with these people. We’ve built a family here, based on adopting vulnerable people and providing them with true rest for the night. In five days time, we have to close the doors and we’re just so worried about what will happen to them when we do. I’ve cried many times, worrying about my new friends.”
When a person becomes homeless, they become non-people in our society. Once a person falls off the bottom rung, the system conspires against them. Without an address they cannot apply for benefits, let alone a job. Without a job, a person’s very identity and purpose becomes confused. It’s a vicious and hopeless circle which inevitably causes many to turn to drink and drugs to numb the pain. The dream of the ENS staff was to provide a restful place for some of the most weary and heavily-burdened people in our area and in doing so, hopefully provide rest for their souls and hope for their future (Matthew 11:28-29).
The notion that true rest was available was a difficult thing for some of the guests to grasp. Jeremy explained that when the shelter first opened, it would take new guests several nights to actually get some sleep. They were so used to sleeping with one eye open for their own safety, that switching off and actually resting was a difficult skill to master. However, over time many of them managed to get genuine sleep and this has undoubtedly had an impact on their ability to make sense to and engage with other agencies in the day time, whose job it is to try to help them get off the streets for good.
The ENS closed its doors on Sunday 20th March, much to the heartbreak of the incredible staff and volunteers who sowed so much into running it. However plans to move the shelter to the next level are well under way. A target of £10k has been set to raise enough money to turn the ENS into a project that runs efficiently and cooperatively enough with all the other homeless agencies in the city to help provide a pathway out of homelessness completely. Unless that happens, the shelter will just maintain people for another winter and then send them out again to the same bleak scenario albeit in slightly warmer weather.
Just like the Emergency Night Shelter, there are some incredible organisations in our area who work with the most difficult and hard-to-reach people in society. If I’ve learned one thing as a Christian who has the privilege of visiting some of these amazing projects, it’s that “Church” is far more than a place to visit on a Sunday to escape the world for a few hours. Church or as Jesus put it, the Kingdom of God, is about people loving Jesus with everything and in doing so, loving others as He loves us. Kingdom is about embracing everyone with the love of God, providing comfort, hope and a true family that loves without discrimination and gives selflessly as unto the Lord. That’s exactly what has happened in Wolverhampton over the past four weeks. Because the family of God in that city sat up and took notice of the destitution around them, there is a homeless man in Wolverhampton tonight who is sleeping rough and yet knows the words he spoke to Jeremy a few nights ago may well ring true again in the future:
“For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m part of something.”
The heart of God is for everyone to be able to feel that way, including society’s have-nots. Please pray that the resource will be provided in order for this reality to be experienced by many, many more people next winter and beyond.
For more information, visit: https://www.facebook.com/Wolverhampton-Emergency-Night-Shelter