‘Nobody’s chosen to be here’: Stories from the winter night shelter

St Thomas Church Charlton-1
St Thomas’ Church hosts a winter night shelter for homeless people.

Charlton’s winter night shelter, at St Thomas’ Church on Woodland Terrace, opens its doors for the last time this evening. Since November, it has provided Friday night accommodation for homeless people as part of the seven-day Greenwich Winter Night Shelter network, whose programme for this year ends next week. Local Democracy Reporter TOM BULL met some of the shelter’s users, and the volunteers who help to run it.

Builders, chefs, and nurses are guests at the Greenwich Winter Night Shelter.

They are also rough sleepers.

The shelter has room for 15 of society’s most vulnerable to get a night’s rest. But more are waiting.

Volunteers are preparing for the “heart-breaking” final week knowing that the end brings uncertainty for clients and workers over where they will go next.

Guests, volunteers say, are people who haven’t chosen homelessness, they have fallen into it.

Their stories show the scale of rough sleeping in the country – one guest this year has been a student nurse, another a chef – one man last night needed a night’s sleep ahead of a job interview and had brought a shirt and trousers to be ironed by the volunteers.

‘No work, no money, no rent’

Rough sleeping in London has reached “inhumane levels”, one homeless builder told us last night.

The man, who didn’t want to be named, had his tools robbed nearly three weeks ago.

“No tools, no work – no work, no money, no rent. It’s simple ain’t it?” he said. He’s been sleeping rough for 16 nights, and this was his first time at the shelter.

“It’s been rough as f***. Last night was the worst. It’s so cold. You couldn’t sit down because you’d feel yourself freezing. You have to get up and walk – not a wink of sleep. If I was out tonight I don’t know what I would do.”

He knows that the shelter’s services are coming to an end, but he has no other choice but to take it up while he can.

“It’s inhumane how Britain is. It goes against human rights. If it wasn’t for here tonight, I’d be out there. These people should be given knighthoods.”

The shelter opened earlier than usual in this, its fifth year in operation, starting in November and working every night out of six different churches and a community centre.

One guest – who previously managed hotel kitchens – has got a job in a café during his stay. He had come over from South Africa in January looking for work and was pickpocketed at Waterloo station.

“I was sleeping rough, I had nowhere to go and I had no money. A woman walked past me and then came back. She asked how much it would be to get a night’s rest. I told her it was about £9, so she went and got me money –  she gave me a hundred quid. It was beyond belief.”

The volunteers said they worry about what happens once the project finishes. Come Wednesday, some guests will have found housing, but others will be back on the streets.

A council snapshot in November found there were seven people sleeping rough. Last night, all 15 beds were booked out.

Between playing pool with guests and organising dinner, volunteers found the time to say how important shelters are.

One co-ordinator, Jo, has been involved with the project from the start. She’s seen a big increase in take-up, putting it down to increased awareness – but said it’s surprising who comes through the doors.

“Nobody here has chosen to be homeless,” she said.

‘It has cost me my marriage’

Sat next to his bed for the night, a 43-year-old father of two said that without the shelter, he didn’t know where he would be.

He said he’s been rough sleeping for six years, and on the housing waiting list for three. He said the council provided a two-bedroom flat for him, his wife and two kids. His now 15-year-old daughter is still sharing a room with her mum, and he’s now on the streets.

“That’s the overcrowding that the Royal Borough of Greenwich can’t sort out,” he said. “It has cost me my marriage and I’ve ended up on the road.

“I’ve been sofa-surfing with friends, but I’ve exhausted everything I can. Absolutely, people don’t get the scale.”

The dad said he is in conversations with a housing officer for a plan to be put in place before the shelter closes.

“My fate is in their hands – I don’t know where I will go. Day to day it’s a challenge.”

Last year, the shelter had 30 different guests who stayed from between five and 85 nights. At least 20 were supported into some form of accommodation. Others either went back to the streets or had sorted another arrangement.

It’s estimated the hours put in by volunteers, at minimum wage, would be the equivalent of £66k.

94 rough sleepers in Greenwich borough

In Greenwich there were 94 different people thought to be sleeping rough over the course of last year.

Councillor Chris Kirby, cabinet member for housing, said that the council is currently reviewing its homelessness strategy.

He said: “We have an excellent track record of demonstrating the strength of working with partners to support homeless people and make the best use of our skills and resources. This includes a Vulnerable Adults Pathway, which provides housing-related support for ex-offenders and/or people with a substance misuse history.

“Official statistics show that rough sleeping in England rose by 169 per cent from 2010 to 2018, coinciding with when the coalition government came to power. We are doing all we can to help those sleeping rough in our borough.”

For more information about the night shelter, and how you can help, see our story from October.


LDRS logoTom Bull is the Local Democracy Reporter for Greenwich. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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