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19 January 2012

Gimme shelter

Gimme shelter

The new year brought good news to the homeless people of Swansea, with churches opening their doors to provide accommodation in January and February. The local media and the BBC picked up on this, giving ample coverage to the venture.

This church night shelter model is one that has been growing and expanding in the past two years and one which has seen the Church in the news for all the right reasons. Ty Nos, the night shelter for the homeless in Wrexham, came about through the campaigning work of TCC - Together Creating Communities - which included a number of churches, but this recent model is one that is overtly church-led.

It was 2009 when the first church night shelter was opened in Newport. Co-ordinator Jade Holtham visited a similar shelter in London and returned with a desire to see one established in Newport, which would provide emergency accommodation and hot meals for the city's homeless. That year, seven churches came together, with each church taking one night a week, and with staff from Newport Teen Challenge moving the mattresses every morning to the next church on the rota. Altogether, 1,096 bed spaces were provided over 18 weeks, with 96 per cent of the guests moving on into more permanent accommodation.

Since then, another of the project's co-ordinators, Stuart Johnson, has been invited on a number of occasions by Christian leaders in other towns and cities in south Wales to talk about the work in Newport, to see if they should start one up themselves.

Last year saw Bridgend successfully launch their Night Shelter, this time working in partnership with homeless charity The Wallich and Bridgend County Borough Council, while this year sees Merthyr, Swansea and Cardiff churches opening their doors for the first time under the Night Shelter model.

One of the remarkable facts about these night shelters is the number of volunteers that are giving of their time, with 100+ having signed up this year for each of the Merthyr and Swansea projects. This is similar to the volunteerism experienced by the Street Pastors and Foodbanks initiatives and sends out a strong message to government of the Church's volunteer base, energy, vision, social capital and contribution to social cohesion.

The present UK government's response to night shelters is also more positive now than was generally the case under Labour. Tony Blair spoke out in 1999 of the need for a radical change in his government's national strategy to reduce rough sleeping, focussing on those most in need. Night shelters and soup kitchens were often seen as being run by well-intentioned amateurs and simply exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. For many different reasons, churches are thankfully now being seen in many government quarters as part of the answer to society's woes, not least because of encouraging work like that of the night shelters and the high numbers of their service users moving on into more permanent accommodation.

If you're interested in starting up a night shelter for next year, contact Stuart on stuart@newportnightshelter.org.