Latest from the Oxford Winter Night Shelter

Rough sleepers got respite from the coldest months of 2020 once again thanks to the Oxford Winter Night Shelter (OWNS).

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Help spot homeless people at risk of slavery

Staff and volunteers at night shelters are being urged to be on the lookout for signs of exploitation among guests in a campaign launched by the Church of England’s anti-slavery initiative.

More than 1,000 posters and other materials aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of modern slavery are to be distributed to winter night shelters across the country by The Clewer Initiative, the Church of England’s response to modern slavery. The Let’s Talk initiative is encouraging night shelters and other outreach services such as soup kitchens to share concerns with the Modern Slavery Helpline or local support services.

The signs of modern slavery amongst homeless people could include:

• Unusual anxiety about people in positions of authority and extreme fear of being watched
• Working for no or little pay
• Working in the most common sectors for modern slavery such as construction and hand car washes
• Not being allowed to leave their place of work
• Having no control of their ID
• Being approached on the street, outside a shelter or at drop-in by someone offering work
• Signs of physical abuse or untreated injuries

The Let’s Talk initiative includes a poster illustrating the typical journey of a homeless person trafficked into exploitation. There are also guidance notes for project managers and volunteers in night shelters on the steps they can take to safeguard their guests from this danger. These include warning guests of the dangers of modern slavery. The Rt Revd Dr Alastair Redfern, Chair of The Clewer Initiative, said: “Time and time again in our work around the country we meet volunteers and project leaders who have encountered modern slavery and have either not recognised it, or not known what to do about it. With rising numbers of homeless people on our streets, it is even more important that we can recognise the signs. With the Let’s Talk resources we will equip the Church to understand what modern slavery looks like, and how they can respond to protect the vulnerable.”

Dr Julia Tomas, Anti-Slavery Coordinator for The Passage said: “In our work with homeless people in London we see how homelessness affects victims of modern slavery who have escaped from their place of exploitation but have nowhere else to go. In its work with the vulnerable across the country, the church has a huge role to play in raising awareness of this issue, and I commend the work of The Clewer Initiative in this area.”

Lys Ford from the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) said: “The GLAA has become increasingly aware of the link between modern slavery and homelessness. We are convinced that by sharing more information between organisations we can find victims earlier and stop perpetrators faster. The Let’s Talk resources from The Clewer Initiative are a great way to get this message across and we hope those running winter night shelters will use them and take action on this issue.”


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


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.”

Oxford Winter Night Shelter declared a huge success

THE first Oxford Winter Night Shelter has been declared a huge success. The shelter involved seven city churches which each opened their doors to the homeless one night a week for 89 days. Read more

Churches step in as homelessness continues to rise


by Jo Duckles

CHRISTIANS across the Thames Valley region are helping provide food and shelter for increasing numbers of rough sleepers this winter.

Anna Moriarty joins in the sleepout in All Saints Marlow. Photo: Wycombe Homeless Connection

Plummeting temperatures and rising levels of homelessness have inspired churches to run the first ever ecumenical winter night shelter in Oxford.

With more than 200 volunteers and over £13,000 in donations, the emergency night shelter will provide accommodation for up to 10 homeless men and women during January, February and March. The churches involved are St Aldate’s, St Alban’s, St Clement’s, St Columba’s, St Ebbe’s, St Michael at the Northgate and Wesley Memorial Church. Oxford’s homeless chaplain, the Revd Mary Gurr, was aware of an increase in the number of rough sleepers in Oxford.

Meanwhile, in Newbury, a similar ecumenical project, but with homeless people offered beds at the Salvation Army building, began on 1 December and will run until the end of February.
The Revd Debbie Davison, from St John’s Church in Newbury, said: “We are still looking for volunteers. It’s the first time we’ve done it in recent years but the number of rough sleepers is definitely rising. There is even a man with a terminal illness who is sleeping rough in Newbury and it’s heartbreaking to see. People have really rallied around him though, bringing him pillows and supplies.”

In Bracknell, Holy Trinity Church is taking part in a night shelter organised by the Pilgrim Hearts charity. Churches from seven denominations are involved, each providing once a week a warm place to spend the evening, an evening meal, a bed for the night, and breakfast. Angela Evans from Holy Trinity is one of the team leaders who helps with the breakfast shift. She said the shelter started in 2016.

“The idea is to reach out to those on the margins, those with no home,” she said. There are usually about 10 people who sleep in the designated church, and up to 17 who drop in for dinner and breakfast. A team of more than 25 volunteers help run the project, which is supported by donations from the church and the wider community.”

In Milton Keynes, an established winter night shelter running across seven churches and providing accommodation for up to 15 rough sleepers opened its doors on 1 December. For the first time this year, another seven locations are joining the scheme on 15 December. This will mean provision will increase from 15 beds to 30. Richard Wightman, a leader at the New Life Church in MK, said the charity had also got use of the town’s old bus station, which will soon be used during the day to provide services and classes for the homeless and vulnerably housed. “They have to be specific services rather than drop-ins, so there will be groups for refugees and adult life-skills classes,” said Richard.

Wycombe Homeless Connection in High Wycombe celebrated its 10th anniversary this year. All Saints Church Wycombe and All Saints Marlow held sleep-outs which saw more than 90 people braving the cold weather to raise £30,000 for the connection, which provides a winter night shelter as well as advice and services all year round to the homeless and vulnerably housed.
“That money will be used to pay for our front-line staff who give incredible advice to those who access our services,” says volunteer Heather Morely. “We helped a total of 504 people in the year to April 2017 (up from 439 the year before, so a sharp rise). That number will be higher again when we do a count in April 2018, as numbers attending our weekday drop-in Support Centre are on the up, and currently running at an average of 14 people a day.”

Students, staff, canons and tutors from Christ Church slept over night in the Cathedral to raise money for the Church Urban Fund. This is the third year running that they have braved the cold in order to support the work CUF does to support homeless people throughout the country. The sleepout took place in late November when around 25 people took part and raised £3,200.

To donate to the Oxford night shelter, donate to Barclays, 20-65-20 83541320.  Cheques payable to Oxford Winter Night Shelter can be sent c/o Parish Manager, OWNS, St Michael at the Northgate, Cornmarket, OX1 3EY.

The Big (election) Issue

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Housing has never been such a big issue in an election. Research from the Resolution Foundation shows that both the Conservative and Labour party have used the words ‘house’ and ‘home’ a record number of times. 1 in 6 people think that housing is the most important issue facing Britain.

It’s not hard to see why. Those under 35 are increasingly unlikely to be able to own their own homes. With houses costing 15 times the average salary (in Oxford) and buyers needing to save for 22  years on average in order to gather the necessary deposit and purchase costs (estimated as £53,500 in a neighbourhood in Reading) it’s clear that, for many, home ownership is unattainable.

Consequently, more and more people are renting privately, but this is also expensive, and often unavailable to those on benefits and leaves tenants vulnerable to eviction and homelessness. The end of a private tenancy is now the leading cause of homelessness. Freezes to the Local Housing Allowance in recent years mean that those in receipt of Housing Benefit face increasing shortfalls between the benefit they receive and the actual cost of rent. In Milton Keynes a family in a two bed house need to find around £150 every month to top up their Housing Benefit and pay the rent. Shelter’s recent research shows this kind of pressure is driving many renters into debt.

When a tenancy ends the cost of a deposit on a new property coupled with upfront rent can mean ‘just about managing’ households become homeless. In the Diocese of Oxford we estimate that it costs around £2,500 – £3,000 to begin a new tenancy. Anyone without access to this amount at short notice can become homeless.

While councils have a duty to house the homeless (so long as they meet certain criteria) the lack of social housing means waiting lists have increased with around 29,000 waiting for a social rented home in the Diocese. This is despite councils such as Slough slashing their waiting lists by bringing in additional criteria.

Increasingly we are seeing that without a stable home, individuals and families are unable to live well and flourish. Research shows that children regress in poor accommodation, that young people are unable to grasp opportunities in their career or relationships and that households remain disconnected from their communities because they do not have a place to call home.

This bleak picture runs across the housing market making this a crucial issue this election. The response from the new government needs to include opportunities for home ownership, more security for those renting privately and a greater supply of social housing. All of this will involve building more, good quality, environmentally friendly, community focused housing.

Bethan Willis
Assistant Social Responsibility Advisor


Tackling homelessness in the Thames Valley

ACTION must be taken to tackle the growing problem of homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in the Thames Valley.

The Revd Mary Gurr, Oxford’s Homelessness Chaplain

That was the message at a day held by the Diocese of Oxford to consider how Christians can respond to rising numbers of rough sleepers and soaring rents and house prices. The event was held on Wednesday 26 April.

Photo: Shutterstock

The Revd Mary Gurr, Oxford’s Chaplain to the Homeless, said we should never stop and let central Government off the hook. “It is a disgrace what is happening now,” said Mary, who had earlier held up a booklet on homelessness, printed in 2015. “Two of the people pictured on the front died at around the age of 47. I know because I did the funerals.”

Mary was one of the speakers at the day, which saw around 40 clergy and others gather in the Christopher Room in the St Aldate’s Parish Centre. Below the Christopher Room is the basement of the Parish Centre in the city centre of Oxford. The basement was open as a warm place to sleep for homeless people during the coldest part of the winter. Mary said St Aldate’s Rector, the Revd Charlie Cleverly had offered the basement as part of a future Winter Night Shelter Project she hoped would be up and running when the cold weather comes again. The Churches Together in Central Oxford scheme was inspired by the Met Office’s Severe Weather Emergency Protocol (SWEP). However, the churches decided the SWEP guidelines were too limited as they only worked temperatures, not wind chill or rainfall.

Mary took on her current role in 2011 and was aware the number of people sleeping rough in Oxford is far higher now than it was then. She introduced Neo, a man who rather than describe himself as homeless, says he chooses to live a nomadic lifestyle. He was the key campaigner who set up the Open House, a group of homeless people who have squatted in disused buildings. The project has raised money to help people get suits for job interviews, passports and other essentials for improving their lives.

“Open House invited Oxford residents, MPs, and all different people and the response was amazing. We accomplished so much in a short time. If we could do that, what could people in power do,” said Neo, who sleeps on Cornmarket Street in Oxford. More recently he has been in the news, appealing for people to give rooms in their homes to people in need of accommodation.

“Two people replied back to offer rooms. I’m also trying to encourage people whose houses are empty because they need doing up, to let homeless people live in them and do the necessary work. There are Polish guys who come to work as painters and decorators. We have access to funding for materials. We are doing this because it is becoming harder and harder to find empty places to squat in legally.”

The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Revd Martin Gorick mentioned the imminent closure of yet another homeless hostel in the Oxford. “I am a trustee of a large charity. We are used to receiving grant applications for £3,000 to £4,000 but now we are getting emergency applications for £90,000 to cover staff costs as funding is being withdrawn. I am aware there is a major change in provision and how we respond to that is quite critical,” said Martin.

Bethan Willis, Assistant Social Responsibility Adviser for the Diocese, presented the concept of place as a gift from God. She described the situation of a woman worried about being forced to leave her home town after her marriage ended. This would mean leaving behind her church, family, and other networks.

Kathy Mohan, Chief Executive of Housing Justice, a Christian charity that works with people of all faiths and none, helping night shelters as well as host families who provide homes. They are currently working with the Quakers on what it means to be an ethical landlord. Kathy described how 1998 legislation allowed private landlords to inflict assured short hold tenancies on people, meaning they had no long-term security of tenure.

“Homelessness takes many different forms. Local authorities take responsibility for housing people who are officially classed as homeless but they are increasingly placing them in the private sector. 28 per cent of those are placed outside their local authority area. People then become isolated, outside of their support networks.”

Insights from the day will feed into a forthcoming publication by Bethan Willis, entitled Dwelling Places.

Bridging the Gap for the homeless


by Jo Duckles

CHURCHES are stepping in to bridge the gap as Government austerity measures are forcing more people out of their homes and onto the streets.

In Oxfordshire alone around 130 beds will be lost as Simon House in Oxford and Julian Housing in Abingdon close. To highlight the increasing problem, the Revd Canon Dr Andrew Bunch, the Vicar of St Giles, organised a homelessness trail following a service on Homelessness Sunday in January.

“Around 40 people visited 16 places that are used by the homeless. It was a good way of raising awareness of the issues that the homeless have to face.”
During the trail an opportunity was provided for participants to talk with people who are coping with being homeless in Oxford. A Thursday lunch- time event at St Giles offered Oxford people the chance to hear about what it is like to be homeless by someone who was homeless but is now one of the staff of the Gatehouse – a drop-in centre for the homeless.

“The big problem we have got at the Gatehouse is a funding gap. Expenditure was £140,000 a year last year, but income was £120,000. The deficit is due to an increase in wage bills and a fall in donations,” said Andrew. “What I’m really worried about is the impact of Government cuts and loss of beds at Simon House and

Photo: Shutterstock

Julian Housing.”
The Gatehouse is open in the St Giles’ Parish Rooms during late afternoons and early evenings on every day except Saturday. It offers tea, sandwiches and an opportunity to meet in a safe environment. During the winter, hot soup is also offered. It also runs a clothing bank for the homeless as well as internet access and books and newspapers.

Public meeting

In Newbury, a public meeting took place on calling for more shelter for rough sleepers and opportunities to help them into work, on Wednesday 15 February.  There the Loose Ends drop-in centre provides meals, clothing and advice five days a week. Pam Hayden, a member of Newbury Baptist Church, runs Loose Ends. She said: “We run entirely on donations. We do a lot but there is so much more that could be done.”

A new soup kitchen, funded by the Salvation Army, was recently started by Meryl Praill, who also volunteers at the Newbury foodbank. The new soup kitchen opens on Thursdays, when Loose Ends is closed. Meryl said: “We have only been going three weeks. The food bank is providing the food and Waitrose is donating bread.” Meryl said that official figures show that there are around 15 rough sleepers in Newbury, but that does not take into account those who are sofa surfing or sleeping in hostels and who don’t have their own home.

Increase in homelessness

In High Wycombe, the Wycombe Homeless Connection, which started as a winter night shelter run by churches, has seen an increase in the number of people using its services.

The Connection has a support centre, helping homeless and vulnerably housed people fill in benefit forms and housing applications and offering food parcels. It helps its clients by running groups to help them build confidence and gain life skills. Apart from the night shelter, which runs from January to March, there is no other emergency accommodation in Wycombe.

James Boultbee, the Connection’s Operations Manager, said the organisation had been hit indirectly by austerity measures. “We have seen a huge increase in the number of people coming to us. That has gone up by 60 per cent and we are seeing a gradual increase in the number of people sleeping rough. We are trying to work out how to stay ahead of the level of demand. I think this is a result of austerity measures and the way the private rented sector has expanded so much. This means people are only offered assured shorthold tenancies which give them very little protection from evictions and rent rises.”

The Connection has always worked closely with All Saints’ Church, in the centre of Wycombe. The Vicar, the Revd Hugh Ellis, said: “We work in a very integrated way with services and authorities. We have a van that comes once a week to the church, where the street people gather in the churchyard. They give them a coffee, a hot breakfast and have a clean needle exchange.

“Some come into the church and light a candle. The work has developed at All Saints where the street community, including some are ex-homeless people, talk about us as their church. Even if they don’t worship here they come for prayer and a cup of coffee.” A day for clergy, LLMs and interested lay people to hear more about the current context of homeless and housing needs takes place on Wednesday 26 April, 10am to 4pm in Oxford. Click here to book.

What’s your housing story?


What’s Your Housing Story?

Last week I watched the BBC documentary No Place to Call Home. It told the moving stories of people facing homelessness in the Borough of Barking and Dagenham. The diversity of the stories were a reminder of the ways in which housing is becoming an increasing problem for people from all parts of our communities.

Stories of Homelessness

A student parent shared her story of being told to leave her family home after she became pregnant. As a student she had no entitlement to housing benefit and began sofa surfing. Three years later she, her boyfriend and their 2 year old child were still sleeping on sofas.

Whilst her partner worked full time as a railway worker, his £900 per month earnings couldn’t match the £950-1000 needed for even a basic flat in the borough. Housing officers suggested that the student give up her teaching degree in order to qualify for housing benefit, but the degree was the families main hope for a more prosperous future.

For a South African woman, ill health was the tipping point between maintaining a private rental and a rapid fall into homelessness. After 12 years of working as a special needs teacher, a serious car crash led to the loss of her job. Without this income her rent became a struggle and the woman had to leave her tenancy. As a single person without a significant disability, the council decided it had no duty to house her.

After one cold and fearful night in her car, the woman found a way to a church-run winter night shelter. She was relieved to see mattresses spaced out for privacy, fresh bedding, a hot meal and people to talk to. In tears she told the staff that it was the first place she had felt safe in a long time.

The Bigger Picture

These stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Homelessness is rapidly increasing as housing becomes less affordable and private rentals remain relatively insecure. In Milton Keynes there has been a 96% increase in the number of families in temporary accommodation since last year. And in Oxford 3000 people are waiting for social housing with only 500 expected to be placed over the course of the year.

Churches’ Response

We already know that many churches are responding to meet the needs of those on the streets through winter night shelters (like those in Bracknell, Milton Keynes, Reading and Slough) and through longer term work in supported housing projects (such as St Aldate’s ACT project). We would love to hear from other churches and groups involved in this work.

Responding to wider issues of housing need is crucial in providing long term solutions to homelessness. We know that there is a real need for landlords to get involved in social letting, and in modelling the highest ethical standards (perhaps through supporting initiatives such as the Quaker run Ethical Landlords Association). Investors may be able to support social letting funds or set up deposit guarantee schemes. Churches with land to spare can contribute by working with external agencies on developing genuinely affordable housing (as Littlemore Baptist have done).

Others may be able to volunteer as befrienders, offering the relational support which can help people to sustain a private tenancy for the first time.

What’s your Housing Story?

Over the coming months we’ll be listening to stories from across the diocese as part of our efforts to respond to issues of housing and homelessness. If you have experienced difficulties with housing or if you work to provide for housing needs we’d love to hear from you.

Contact: Bethan Willis –

Churches provide night shelter for the homeless


SEVEN churches have joined forces for the second year running to transform their premises into the Slough Night Shelter.

Charities Slough Homeless Our Concern (SHOC), a day centre for the homeless, and the London and Slough Run, collaborated with the churches to set up the shelter during the harshest months of the year.  Slough Homeless Concern is a day centre for the homeless and the London and Slough Run is a charity that provides items such as food, drink, clothing, bedding and toiletries to over three hundred people who come along to the various distribution points situated on the streets of London and Slough.

The Revd Peter Wyard, of St Mary’s Datchet, one of the participating churches, said homelessness in Slough had risen by 100 per cent in the last year. So St Mary’s was delighted to be able to host this year’s night shelter in its new community centre (pictured above) which opened in December 2014.
He said: “Where last year we made do with an old and damp church room that barely made it through the health and safety checks, this year we have been delighted to welcome our guests into the newly appointed Church Community Centre.

“Every week volunteers welcome the guests with tea, coffee and snacks. They provide a hot meal and a warm place for them to rest for the night. Volunteers mingle with the guests, playing cards with them, chatting and providing companionship. Others keep watch overnight, providing company to those who can’t sleep and serving breakfast to all in the morning. Plus, there are those who are happy to clean up the next day.

“Aside from the many individuals helping out, we have been touched by the generosity of local businesses who’ve given fresh bread, sandwiches and magazines and more. This year, Churchmead school in Datchet have also got involved, not only in cooking hot meals for our guests every Friday but sending them personalised messages of support, and bringing smiles to their faces. We hope we can continue the night shelter over the years to come.” For more information see and

The new hall at St Mary's, Datchet.

The new hall at St Mary’s, Datchet.