“I left this one behind one behind at St. Mungo’s homeless hostel in Mare Street. He’s looking a bit chilly behind that wall. Might go back and paint him a scarf!” says Hackney artist Stik. Photo: Claude Crommelin

As the nights draw in and the air gets that little bit sharper, most of us at the end of the day look forward to getting home to the simple pleasures of a warm house, a square meal, some good telly or conversation and a peaceful night’s sleep. These are the basics of everyday living that are the norm for most people, but unfortunately not all.

For those who are homeless in Hackney, each night brings with it some stark choices  – to head into the City like many of London’s rough sleepers, where it is seen to be marginally safer?

To try and get some warmth and sleep, riding on the night buses? Or to try your luck at one of the oversubscribed hostels – where, as Simon Hughes of homeless charity St Mungo’s points out, “you will need to be referred by a homelessness agency” – and even then, “chances are a bed won’t be available immediately.”

However, as winter closes in and the weather starts to bite, another choice becomes available. Every year on the first of January, Hackney Winter Night Shelter opens its doors to some of the most vulnerable, challenging, charming, exasperating, intelligent and resourceful members of our community.

For the last 14 years the volunteer-run shelter, which has a different venue each night of the week, has been providing a free evening meal, bed and breakfast to the homeless people of Hackney – predominantly single men aged 20 to 40 who are often at the bottom of the housing allocations pile.

It is not your average soup kitchen and as Tigger Cullinan, Co-ordinator of the London Fields shelter at St Michael & All Angels, explains:

“We always call them our guests and we invite them in to join us. At St Michaels we serve them (guests), everybody is served, we don’t ask them to queue up. And you wonder, who are they – and actually they are you and me without the safety nets we’ve got.”

One person who benefited from the service in 2007 was Jeff Hubbard – now off the streets and on the organising committee for the shelter: “I personally was incredibly grateful for it – I don’t know how I would have survived without that shelter for a couple of months.”

However, with minimal resources and high demand, the shelter was not without its own challenges – as Jeff points out that, operating on a first come first served basis meant “you have 20-25 places per night and 40 to 45 people wanting them.”

In response to this issue, the shelter is implementing a telephone allocations policy, thus eliminating the need to queue outside for hours with no guarantee of a bed at the end of it. Another recent innovation is the addition of two seconded Support Workers from Thamesreach, a London based homelessness charity.

As Jeff puts it, the Support Workers were there “to give really intensive help to find the right situation for people and to move them on from using that (the shelter), so that other people could use it and also be moved on.”

This year the Support workers found accommodation for 16 guests, nine were no longer homeless, three were on waiting lists, and eight were still in progress, and the shelter hopes to carry on the good work when its doors re-open on 1 January, 2009.

As Helen Gordon, one of the shelter’s long term volunteers, puts it: “there are many problems in London and no one can solve them all but homelessness is something we should all think more about – a community solution to a problem in our community.”

For more information on Hackney Winter Night Shelter’s services or to volunteer, please visit Hackney Winter Night Shelter

Other Hackney homelessness services:

St Mungo’s, Hackney
020 8762 5500

Greenhouse Walk-In
19 Tudor Road
Hackney E9 7SN
020 8510 4490

Housing Advice and Homelessness Centre
Christopher Addison House
72 Wilton Way
Hackney E8 1BJ
020 8356 2929