Set up as a registered charity by Churches Together in King’s Lynn in 2017, we were blessed this winter with a Night Shelter building of our own which soon became a place of sanctuary, stability and sense of family for those who came to stay.
They came from a huge variety of backgrounds and circumstances: some had been homeless for months or years, others had lost their home only that day; some were in their 70s, one arrived on the night of his 18th birthday. Some were physically unwell, one was in a wheelchair; many others had complex mental health needs. Some were alcohol dependent or suffering from drug addictions, some had a history of self-harm; were grieving from broken relationships, were fleeing violence, were suicidal. Some arrived as couples. Some came to us in desperation because so much had gone wrong in their lives that they could not be housed elsewhere. Others had come to the UK in search of work but struggled to find it or earn enough to keep them in a tenancy. Some were just out of prison, or hospital. One had been a teacher. Some could not read. 16 of the 97 were women. The most we cared for on any night was 24; 2987 beds over the 5-month winter season.
“It’s actually a brilliant organisation, staff are very friendly and helpful, big thanks for them. I met new friends here, food was delicious all the time. Nice and warm bed”.
The work was made possible by the support of around 130 local volunteers from every possible walk of life; their reasons for wanting to help were often inspiring and it wasn’t unusual to hear of a baby lost or a son or brother homeless or suffering from addiction in another town or in the past “and I want to help others here”. Together with a small staff team they cooked, cleaned and made our guests welcome: “I found it heart warming and at times heart breaking, sometimes challenging but always incredibly worthwhile”. Meanwhile we were working hard behind the scenes to build connections with our “partner agencies”, the Borough Council, Probation services, the Police, local hostels: relationships so essential for the ongoing support and welfare of those we were trying to help.
“The Night Shelter has helped me in every single way I can think of. It got me off amphetamines … The regular food, shelter and care made all the difference. People listened and even helped me with my medical needs … Now I’m in another hostel for a month and after that I will get support towards a place of my own, which will be adapted for my needs … If it wasn’t for the Night Shelter I wouldn’t be where I am now. I would probably be on the street dead. I feel fantastic now – I sincerely mean it”. Night shelter resident.
On the last Saturday of the winter season, just as the last of our guests were preparing to leave us, we took all those from the winter who wanted to come for a Day Out on the North Norfolk coast at Walsingham and Wells-next-the-Sea. It was a glorious spring day and a rare chance for some of them to escape the hard realities of life on the streets: for some it was the first time they had been out of Lynn in two or three years.
“It’s helped me a lot. Made me think more about what I want. If I wasn’t in the Night Shelter I’d probably be in jail”.
We were made welcome for coffee with the Sisters at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, in their garden; we lit candles in the church; we had a fish-and- chip lunch on the Wells harbour front and finished the day with a boat trip – for the bravest! – out to sea. It was a hugely enjoyable day of fellowship and good times together; it was also an extraordinary time of grace. As we stood in the Holy House in Walsingham with all that we are and had been, one guest who had come to us ready to take his own life said “I am not a believer but this is a bit of Heaven here”.
“The time I spent there made me feel I had a purpose in life”.
Being homeless, and particularly being homeless on the streets of a town where people know you, is humiliating. The experience of having to ask for everything you need – from Universal Credit to a toothbrush – can feel a painful loss of dignity; the waiting and uncertainty which is the reality of being one of a huge number (one in 200 of us) of homeless people in the UK in 2019 is often frustrating, discouraging and a constant struggle for the next day, the next hour. The hidden pain that people carry can be enormous: it is always a shock in a Night Shelter to discover as guests begin to share their stories just how many were abused as children.
At the Night Shelter we try to see the whole person, the suffering, wounded person, as someone for whom the current lack of a home is not something they have chosen and which in no way detracts from their dignity as a human being. Mother Teresa in Calcutta in the 1960s declared “the biggest disease today is the feeling of being unwanted”: for our homeless guests, the visible and tangible proof that we were interested in them was what made the difference, what they commented on and thanked us for when they left.
Jon Kuhrt, Rough Sleeping Adviser to the Government and specialising in the response of faith and community groups, writes on the approaches of “grace” versus “truth”: compassion and acceptance on the one hand, and challenge and responsibility on the other. At the Night Shelter we have seen that these approaches do not have to be in conflict at all: unconditional care for the dignity and welfare of those who come to stay is the best thing we can possibly give them to help them – with the right support – find strength and hope for themselves.
We are immensely grateful to all our supporters and benefactors, to Nick Daubney, Mayor of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk who chose us as one of the Mayor’s Charities of the Year, and to the Bishop of Lynn, who serves as our Patron and said in April;
“I have been hugely impressed by the sheer number of volunteers helping over the winter of 2018/19, by the strong sense of compassion and commitment shown both by everyone involved, and by the stories and comments coming back from those who stayed. Jesus told us he was to be found in those who need our help and support – it is heartening to see how he was met, welcomed, housed and nourished in the 97 people who came to us this last year”.
“It was all of you caring about me that did it. It made me start to care about myself”.