On Friday night, 40 people slept outside on cardboard in the churchyard of St James’ Church Piccadilly in central London. I was there, along with my Mum (75), son (13), daughter (8), as well as my brother and two nieces.
It was noisy and cold, and sightings of rats scurrying nearby did not exactly help any of us sleep well.
It is a sad fact, that the numbers of rough sleepers in London has gone up every year since 2010. Westminster is the homeless epicentre of the UK.
We know that sleeping out for one night can never replicate the real experience of genuinely homeless people. But our one night of discomfort was to raise money for the work of the Westminster Churches Winter Shelter which brings together 13 churches and a synagogue who open each night to offer a meal and a bed to homeless people between October and May every year.
The shelter is coordinated by the charity I work for, the West London Mission. What makes the scheme so effective is the blend of professional advice and expertise along with the amazing warmth and hospitality that the churches provide.
At the start of the sleep out, the vicar Lucy Winkett, who also slept out, welcomed everyone to St James’. We then heard from two of the current guests, Richard and Michael (pictured) who are staying in the Shelter came and spoke about their experiences.
They also wrote out their stories so we could share them. Michael, wrote the following:
‘I once lived in a nice place, but many of my problems have been caused by an addiction to gambling. I began ignoring the bills when they were small and manageable. But as every person knows, small bills become big bills. Also, my benefits were stopped after I walked out of a government computer course as I have always had a real aversion to technology.
My way of dealing with it was to bury my head in the sand and I chose to ignore all the letters that came through the door. Then one day, the inevitable happened when I came home and my place had all the locks changed. Looking back, I must have had a nervous breakdown.
I began sleeping rough out on the streets. This is where the West London Day Centre came to my rescue and helped me with my benefit. They also referred me to a GP and was given medication to help with my depression. Karen at the Day Centre helped me deal with things – even though I would still encounter difficulties, I now had someone to help me.
I am now residing in 7 different churches who open up to give us a lovely meal and a bed. Its wonderful to be able to go somewhere so warm and welcoming each night.
The Day Centre and shelter has been instrumental in helping me with any difficulties that I have encountered. Any funding they receive is truly deserved – they provide homeless people with food, clothes, showers, benefit advice, medical help and opticians. They without a shadow of a doubt have saved me from a whole heap of misery.”
So, whilst it was only one night of discomfort for me and my family it helped all of us reflect more on what its like to be homeless. It also helped raise over £20,000 which all goes directly into helping people like Michael.
Last year, WLDC helped 366 people to come off the streets and into accommodation. We have a dedicated team who work incredibly hard. Please consider supporting our work – you can donate easily via our Just Giving Page.