“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

New Year’s Day is generally not the most productive of days, with many people in bed recovering from a night of excess. But for the Hackney Winter Night Shelter (HWNS) volunteers, the first of January is when the work begins.

For the first three months of the year, Hackney churches become inner-city dormitories for some of most vulnerable members of the community, providing food, accommodation and social interaction – all things that may have been missing from the holiday season.

Each night of the week a different church is set up with suppers, blankets, washing facilities and a TV. Help has come from different places. In the past, mosques have given food, The Learning Trust has provided transport and locals have donated board games and radios.

Set up 16 years ago by Hackney residents concerned about the number of people sleeping rough, the HWNS has gone from strength to strength. In 2010, a record number of 130 people were provided with beds and 560 volunteers helped to make this possible.

As well as providing shelter for the coldest months of the year, the organisers seek out long-term solutions for their guests and the success rate keeps going up.

“This year, 88 per cent of all guests who stayed longer than two nights had accommodation sorted out by the end of March,” according to Paul Sorenson, one of the coordinators.

For those not prioritised by social housing, this stretches to putting down deposits on private lettings. However, homelessness is getting no easier to tackle.

“There has been an influx in the number of people with no recourse to government funding,” Paul explains.

“Often they are from other EU countries and as well as accommodation they need help with basic things, like buying travel cards and mobile phone top-up cards; whatever makes it easier to look for work.”

Having a native Polish speaker amongst the 2010 volunteers has proved invaluable. Volunteers are vital to the shelter and undergo various training programmes, from drug and alcohol awareness to managing aggression. A partnership with Thames Reach Support provides experienced outreach workers.

Many of the guests who do become integrated back into  the mainstream return to the shelter as volunteers; a clear sign of how important they believe the scheme to be.

HWNS is funded by grants and private donations and has recently become part of an umbrella organisation, Hackney Doorways, which offers continued support when the shelter closes.

More information about helping out in 2011 can be found at Hackney Winter Night Shelter.

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