The Boar visited the Coventry Winter Night Shelter (CWNS) to find out more about the “safe and secure space” provided in the Salvation Army Church.
The project is run by eight churches around the city, seven nights a week from December 1 to March 31 every year, looking after 20 guests a night.
The project began five years ago and “provides rough sleepers with support, a hot meal, a safe and warm bed for the night and breakfast the next day”.
Coventry Winter Night Shelter aims to ensure the safety of all guests and volunteers, but has no criteria for using the shelter.
The venues offer a hot three-course meal, games and a place to socialise, a sleeping area and a hairdresser. A shower was available for guests to use in the venue visited by The Boar.
Head Volunteer of the Salvation Army Church Shelter, Sue, has been volunteering since the project started.
She said: “I never dreamed of working with the homeless. I retired and was looking for something to do. This is my church and they offered up the venue. My previous working life involved organising volunteers, so my role has emerged from there.
“For volunteers at the shelter, there is no such thing as a typical shift. We start preparing the venue at 6:30pm and open at 7pm, but if it is really cold we’ll open as soon as we can.
“When the guests come in they either choose to crash out on the beds straight away, because they have nowhere to go during the day, or they play games, read books and newspapers and chat with the volunteers.
“At 8pm, all guests and volunteers sit down to a meal together. Tea and coffee is available at any time. By 9-10pm, most of the guests are in bed and lights out.”
Food is provided by organisations such as Midland Langar Seva and Tesco
– Sue, Head Volunteer
For volunteers working the night shift from 9:30pm-7am, the role involves “keeping anyone who can’t sleep company and sorting out feelings of conflict that arise”, as well as “washing clothes and making sandwiches for the guests to have a packed lunch the next day”.
“We’re very blessed that the Salvation Army provides donations for an evening meal, breakfast and sandwiches for the next day.
“We liaise with different partner agencies that support the homeless across the city, working with the Salvation Army, Jesus Centre, Crisis, Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre, and others.
“Food is provided by organisations such as Midland Langar Seva and Tesco, as well as dedicated teams of volunteers who provide a warm, homemade meal. At Christmas, the volunteers bought everyone a £5 Greggs’ voucher.”
The rough sleepers visiting the shelter are accepted for who they are, Sue explained. She said that “volunteers will never judge their past, relying on them to open up, never asking directly”.
She continued: “We don’t struggle to face anything because the aim is that we are providing a safe, secure place. There are 8 volunteers present, so if anyone appears to be vulnerable, we can sort it out. CWNS is about safeguarding guests and volunteers.”
When asked what students can do to help and how they can get involved in Coventry Winter Night Shelter, Sue told The Boar: “We’ve had some great students helping in the past.
“The minimum shift you can do is once every 3 weeks as there needs to be a regular commitment so they can build relationships with the clients.
“Anyone who is willing to commit can become involved. We have training sessions in October and November for new volunteers.”
During the opening period of the shelter, approximately 60-70 rough sleepers are helped, with a bed occupancy of 90% from 2018 to 2019. Sue explained that, as a result of the number of homeless organisations in Coventry, there are very few rough sleepers in the city centre.
The biggest problem is a lot of people want to be on the streets for drugs and alcohol
– Richard, regular shelter guest
“At the moment it’s quiet, but before Christmas we were full. It’s quite quiet tonight, but there are 18 regulars who could be here.”
The Boar asked Richard, a regular guest at the shelter, to talk about his experience there. He explained the harshness of life on the street in the winter months and his hopes for the future.
Richard said: “It is the best night shelter in Coventry, but there are not many spaces. The biggest problem is a lot of people want to be on the streets for drugs and alcohol. Everything is getting better and I feel safe here.”
When asked about what he planned to do after March, when the shelter closes again until December, Richard told The Boar that he plans on finding a house to rent, as his belongings are currently being kept for him in two separate houses in the city.
Anton, another guest at the shelter originally from Hungary, explained how, after coming to England in 2012, he was able to rent a flat in Coventry until 2017. After losing his housing benefit in March of that year, he was forced to live on the streets in Coventry and Birmingham, and has used the shelter ever since.
He told The Boar that confusion between Birmingham and Coventry City councils means he has been unable to get housing benefit from either. He said the shelter has helped him during this difficult time, and is hopeful the problem would be solved soon.
Another shelter volunteer, Alethea Balbuena said she was inspired to help at the shelter after hearing about it at her church late last year.
Ms Balbuena is a mother of two who has lived in Coventry all her life. January 16 was her second evening shift at the shelter, where she plans to volunteer every three weeks throughout the winter opening period.
Although working a few hours every three weeks fits around her family and full-time job, she feels that being with the clients on a regular basis helps volunteers to build closer and more sustained relationships with them.
However, the interactions she had with Richard and other guests showed how quickly staff at the shelter build meaningful and supportive friendships, which they view as key to build trust and respect between the men that come in and those working there.