Hundreds of homeless sought winter refuge in church-run night shelters

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Clients get a good night’s sleep in a warm building at the Bracknell Winter Night Shelter. Photo: Pilgrim Hearts Trust

Camp beds are assembled by volunteers at the Bracknell Winter Night Shelter. Photo: Pilgrim Hearts Trust

Winter night shelters have saved hundreds of homeless people in the Oxford Diocese from having to sleep rough during the coldest nights of the year.

The Bracknell Winter Night Shelter welcomed a record number of homeless people throughout the winter. The shelter ran for four months, providing a safe, warm, dry place to sleep for 94 people. It will re-open in December. The shelter was run by more than 200 volunteers in seven venues, one for each night of the week, across the town.

The Bracknell Winter Night Shelter was coordinated by a local charity; The Pilgrim Hearts Trust in partnership with churches and other charities. Sponsors include the Bishop of Oxford’s Outreach Fund.

Elaine Chalmers Brown, Director of the Pilgrim Hearts Trust says that although the night shelter is closed for the spring and summer, they will continue to help the homeless. “We don’t just throw these people back out onto the streets. They are welcomed at our twice-weekly drop-in centre at St Andrews’ Church Hall, Priestwood where we offer them help and advice so that they can find a solution to their problems. They can access training and we help them to find employment and  permanent homes.”

Bracknell Night Shelter from Real Time on Vimeo.

The charity has plans to expand its work to include other Berkshire towns where homelessness has increased. Next winter it will be working closely with Wokingham charities to open a night shelter there, as well as in Bracknell. The number of people sleeping rough on the streets of Bracknell has tripled since 2010 according to official figures from the Department for Communities and Local Government. There were just six rough sleepers in the borough in 2010; that has now risen to 19 in 2018. Bracknell Forest and Slough had the highest numbers of rough sleepers in Berkshire in 2018.

The picture in Bracknell has been echoed across the Diocese of Oxford, with similar shelters and provision for the homeless set up in places including Newbury, Milton Keynes and High Wycombe. In Windsor, 160 volunteers ran a night shelter that has led to some homeless people finding accommodation and others getting regular support from their local church. The Revd Nigel Richards says: “At All Saints, we are continuing to open our doors every Thursday evening providing a meal and games/DVD night, and my friend, a hairdresser is offering free haircuts and beard trims every week.

“One of the guys has become a regular congregation member and a couple of them have offered to do stuff in the church, doing music with the teenagers. The real difference, however, is in an awesome general change of dynamic in Windsor of how people view homelessness. We have managed to get local businesses to help support the meals including Pizza restaurants and chip shops.”

The Windsor night shelter will re-open in November, running for an additional six weeks and needing around 250 volunteers. “This has come together so joyfully and powerfully. My experience from other shelters tells me that a paid night-manager would bring things together even more and we hope to employ someone next winter,” added Nigel.

Meanwhile, the Oxford Winter Night Shelter has just finished its successful second year. It doubled the number of beds from 10 to 20 and served hot drinks and snacks to guests. It was run by 340 volunteers across 12 venues representing six different Christian denominations.

The Revd Mary Gurr, Oxford’s chaplain to the homeless, said: “We have been greatly blessed by our many donors, who have given goods, services and money. And finally, a big thank you to Graham Doel, our Project Manager, for gently guiding us into the technology of the 21st century. It has been a pleasure to get to know our guests and to see them relax and hopefully benefit from a respite from the streets. We have much to be thankful for, and much to celebrate.”