Southend Winter Night Shelters has been running for eight years, a combination of seven churches of different denominations and due to another church pulling out of the process we were approached to fill the void, and thanks be to God, the Holy Spirit smiles on us and Father Graham said yes…
There was an enormous amount of work purchasing the essentials, bedding, sleeping bags, mattresses as well as rounding up volunteers. Nervously we tackled the Sacred Heart faithful and while receiving a magnificent response expanded our call to all the parishes in the Southend Partnership and in the end had in excess of 100 volunteers – people willing to cook for 35, clean toilets, meet and greet our guests, stay overnight and prepare breakfast in the morning. There was a spiritual aspect for those who wished such enlightenment through night prayer in the church at 9pm.
And then there was our complete lack of experience – John Simmons and the team at Southend Winter Night Shelters supported us throughout the process and when the big day came we opened the doors and welcomed our first guests – 17 on the first night who enjoyed a hot meal, a range of generously donated clothing and our team started to get into the rhythm that would last for the next 15 weeks. 336 beds were slept in and 560 hot meals were cooked, we had our highs and lows but the joy of the shelter was seeing our team bring the words of the Gospel to life, interacting with teenagers, men and women alike, alcoholic’s, drug addicts, people just released from prison, even a lady 78 years of age. Their stories heartbreaking, human beings in a downward spiral with no hope and nowhere to go!
The experience of our guests and volunteers was uplifting, spiritual and life affirming. Great stories include Chris who now attends Mass every Sunday, a young mother reunited with her baby, a roof securely over her head and Father Wojciech’s marvelous work with the Polish men who surprised us by their numbers, eight on one particular night. Many have been rehomed.
After the shelter closed a drop-in-center has been run in Sacred Heart Hall on Sunday afternoons and on Wednesday nights Father Wojciech has continued to work with the Polish homeless. The Sacred Heart parish represents one of the top 5% of deprived areas in the country and with Father Graham’s support we have run a lunch club during school holidays for the most disadvantaged in conjunction with the local Foodbank, which our Parish is a founding member.
This year we are about to start again on Wednesday 4th December and will be joined this year by St. Helens, Westcliff, who have taken up the mantle of providing shelter on Friday nights.