Local homeless people were given a warm welcome and a helping hand this week as the Tunbridge Wells Churches Winter Shelter opened its doors again.
The project, which is now in its sixth year, consists of 10 churches in the town which offer accommodation and food for up to a dozen people who are sleeping rough during the toughest weather conditions of the year.
The shelter, which runs for nine weeks until March 5, is a lifeline for the 15 people who are known to sleep rough in Tunbridge Wells – though the latest count doesn’t include others who might be sleeping on friends’ floors and elsewhere.
It contains 12 beds and provides a two-course dinner, breakfast and takeaway lunch. But in addition to the warmth and nutrition, it also tries to help the homeless find a place to stay permanently.
Project Manager Wendy Hogg says: “The aim is twofold: The first thing is to get rough sleepers off the streets at the coldest time of the year because they can die out there. And you know how cold it has been in the last few days.
“Then we provide them with intensive support so that they can move on when the shelter closes in March. Nine weeks is not always long enough to get people into accommodation so I carry on that work after the shelter closes, all year round until we get a good outcome from that situation.”
The organisation offers a range of other services too. “We assess our clients’ needs when they come in,” says Wendy. “We can provide referrals to local hostels. Many of them haven’t seen a GP for ages so they may have health problems, for example with their teeth. And there are issues around benefits that we can sort out for them.”
The project is funded by the Churches for Tunbridge Wells group and also receives a contribution from the borough council.
“The shelter has been really embraced by the local community,” says Wendy, from Hildenborough, who has worked with the homeless for more than a decade. “People tend to be shocked that there is a need for a winter shelter in 2016.
“The next nearest shelters are in Maidstone and Bromley. There’s nothing in Tonbridge, Sevenoaks or in Crowborough direction.”
The service moves to a different church hall every night, which provides a logistical challenge. But there are 180 volunteers who man the shelter in three shifts and provide feedback on the people who come in.
There are teams of helpers who wash duvets and cook the meals – though the organisers are keen to hear from anyone who can help out with washing duties.
Wendy adds: “We have hairdressers coming in too, and last year a local teacher ran an art project. There are also lots of cakes and biscuits around which have been donated – and it’s always nice for the clients to have a slice of homemade cake.
“There are mindful colouring books which are proving popular, and the board games have gone down a storm. These are ordinary things that you and I do at home but they never get a chance to do.”
This year’s initiative comes in the wake of an incident which shows just how vulnerable the homeless are.
Last month a man who was sleeping in the Great Hall car park on Mount Ephraim found his bedding and clothes had been set alight and destroyed.
The blaze was extinguished by the fire brigade and police attended the scene.
It is understood that the 30-year-old man, who is of Polish descent, has since been provided with new clothing and bedding by members of the public after two local teenagers launched campaigns on social media.
If you would like to help the Tunbridge Wells Churches Winter Shelter, especially with their washing service, please call 07513 377951 or email firstname.lastname@example.org