‘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.
See more about how The Charlton Champion uses LDRS content.

Classical concert in support of Charlton’s Night Shelter for the homeless

The Charlton Ensemble will perform ‘popular classics for cello, voice and piano’ in support of St. Thomas’ Church’s night shelter for the homeless on Sunday 27 January.

The Charlton Ensemble consist of professional instrumentalists and singers who live, work and/or worship in the Charlton area. They promise a varied programme ranging from Baroque to Bernstein. The concert will take place at St. Thomas’ Church on Woodland Terrace, starting at 7pm; tickets cost £10 – phone 07989 740 252 to book.

St. Thomas’ night shelter for the homeless forms part of the Greenwich Winter Night Shelter Network, which provides overnight accommodation for rough sleepers in the borough of Greenwich. You can read more about the project – and how to get involved – here.


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Listening to the community: Why Charlton’s C of E churches have launched an action plan

St. Luke's Church, Charlton
There has been a church dedicated to St Luke in Charlton since the 11th century

Charlton’s two C of E churches, St Luke’s and St Thomas’, are pledging to do more in the community over the next few years. REVD LIZ NEWMAN, the rector of the Benefice of Charlton, outlines its new action plan, which includes setting up a youth cafe and schemes to combat loneliness and social injustice.

What is mission? In the Church, one short answer to that question is that it’s “finding out what God is doing and then joining in!” But before we can join in, we need to listen to what’s happening.

At St Luke’s and St Thomas’ churches, we’ve been doing a lot of listening over the past year. Listening to our community, to ourselves and to God. As a result we’ve come to some conclusions about what we believe God is calling us to be and do. And we’ve decided on our priorities for the next three to five years.

So what is top of our list? Where are we going to put energy, time and love?

  • Engaging and nurturing children and young people
  • Sharing our faith confidently
  • Reaching isolated groups
  • Better community engagement

The recent United Nations report on poverty in this country highlighted shocking statistics about the impact on our poorest communities of living with little. Knife crime and gang culture is taking and ruining far too many young lives in our city. We live in challenging times of injustice, and that is a concern to people of all faiths and none.

Jesus was on the side of the poor and dispossessed, and following his example means we need to be as well. We are already part of Greenwich Winter Night Shelter, which houses 15 homeless people through the coldest months of the winter. And we have plans to start an open access Youth Café, to strengthen and extend our existing Schools Project, to run fun activities for children during school holidays, to develop a mental wellbeing project and a social justice project and to grow a project that will combat loneliness.

Charlton is a place that is set to grow hugely in the coming years. We need to be able to live together well, so that everyone can belong and flourish. St Thomas’, St Luke’s and St Richards Church Centre want to work with our local communities for the good of all.

We have plans to make connections with people and places in our local area that we haven’t had relationships with before, to develop our churches as community hubs and to continue to work with other local people and the council to ensure that Charlton Riverside becomes a true community where there is plenty of affordable and social housing.

Our faith motivates who we are and what we do. Because we believe in a God of love, in whose sight we are all precious, we want to meet people where they are and help them discover that good news for themselves. So we’re building our own confidence and aiming to grow new congregations at St Luke’s, St Thomas and St Richard’s. They won’t necessarily look like traditional church, because traditional church isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But that’s fine, because if church listens and adapts, there is room for everyone. And of course, we’ll be aiming to grow traditional church as well!

The teachings of Christ underpin all that we do. We’re striving to be people who are joyful, live in loving relationship with God and our neighbours, are good listeners, forgive, work for justice and celebrate diversity. We have a lot of plans and we know we’re being ambitious! But we are trusting and living in hope. And on the way, we’re expecting to discover what we’re here on this earth for.

We believe Charlton is the place that God has given us to love and we look forward to doing just that over the years to come. If you want to know more, please visit our website at www.charlton.church. And, whoever and whatever you are, you will always be welcome at our churches and to join in the adventure that lies ahead.


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