“Every person is only three pay cheques away from homelessness,” says Community Services leader Bea Jackson, as she describes her reasoning for setting up the Winter Night Shelter at Willesden Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA).*
Bea was quoting Marlon Nelson, who helped to set up the ‘Route 18 Brent Winter Night Shelter’ five years ago, which is named after the No.18 bus that runs through the area.
It’s a local community initiative and is done in partnership with churches, mosques and Brent’s homeless charity Cricklewood Homeless Concern (CHC). The scheme aims to ensure that no one sleeps rough on the streets during the cold winter months, and our church has been involved since its inception.
Well, five years on, what has changed?
There have been some problems, says Bea. There hasn’t been as much contact with the other churches as in previous years because of a technical problem, so this meant that she was unable to find out what issues other churches were facing and was not as able to offer or receive support from other coordinators.
CHC placed many people in accommodation quickly, which was good news, however this meant that sleeping bags had to be made available at a moment’s notice.
You may have noticed that the Winter Night Shelter at Willesden Church only took place once a fortnight. This is because there were also more churches involved this year, which is a good thing. However Bea explains that it became very tiring for the guests, because they had to visit 13 venues in 14 days.
“This year,” Bea adds, “I found it hard to recruit volunteers and it was the same core people volunteering, and there were times when we were understaffed, but God is good and He always sent someone in the nick of time to help us out.”
Reflecting over this year’s project, Bea talks about a new volunteer who helped her out at the beginning of the year. His wife attends our church, but he is not a member. “He was so committed and dedicated to helping out in the shelter, and nothing was too much for him to do,” explains Bea.
She talks about the young people who got involved and says that some even slept over, and that other young people from the community came to help, including a member’s nephew from another denomination. Even SDA South England Conference president Pastor Sam Davis popped down to help out one time, as covered in The Messenger and BUC News.
A small group of Pathfinders, with their leader Sean Torrington, helped out many times by staying over from Saturday night to Sunday morning.
Hilcious, aged 11, said on one of the nights that he had stayed overnight five times. “I really like playing games and watching films,” he explained, “I like sleeping over. I feel helpful when I’m volunteering and it’s the right thing to do.”
Even though people didn’t necessarily volunteer their time to help out in the project, Bea says that she received food and money donations from church members. “They were committed and sincere with their giving, and without their donations, the shelter would not have lasted as long as it had done.” Everyone’s efforts had helped to create a relaxing atmosphere for the guests.
Akram, one of the shelter’s regular guests, is quite a cheeky chap, as we discovered during a very lively game of Snap (yes, Snap). When asked how he felt about the shelter at our church, he said: “The people are nice here, there’s good entertainment and it’s a nice place to stay. The drink and food is nice as well – I wish I could stay.”
There are various reasons why someone becomes homeless, says Bea. What stood out for her was when a new volunteer was surprised to see some of the guests with mobile phones or found out that they worked. “It depends on their perception of homelessness,” explains Bea.
“As a church we need to be more aware of the issues that surround not just the church community, but the community at large, especially with the recession and the welfare reforms,” says Bea.
When asked if she would be the coordinator for the shelter again for this winter, Bea seemed a bit hesitant. She says she’s been doing it for five years now. “I would still like to be involved as a volunteer. I am sure there can be improvements, and a new coordinator would be able to bring in fresh ideas.”
Bea emphasises that the shelter plays an important role in the community, though. “There are a lot of people in our community who have never heard of the SDA Church, so by getting involved in external projects, it raises our profile and enables the community to engage in conversations with us and find out who, and what, we are.
She adds that it’s important to “work the harvest” as Jesus did.
*If you would like to see photos from the shelter’s last night, then click here