1 May 2014 | Volunteering | Back to Blog

Helping the homeless at Hackney Winter Night Shelter

By Harriet


I have lived, studied, and worked on and off in London for the past 10 years, moving from borough to borough in the search for affordable housing that isn’t hours away from university or work.  Homelessness, in its various forms, has been a formative part of my experience of London and I have always been interested in getting involved in volunteering that would give me the opportunity to try to help those affected by it.  I have never been homeless and probably never will be – I have friends and family to turn to for support if I need it.  But I have lots of friends who have struggled to pay rent, some of whom decided to squat in industrial spaces rather than move out of the city or have chosen to cut down on food or who have had to borrow money from friends to keep their (often not very salubrious) homes, and I am constantly aware as I go about life in London of people sleeping rough.  It is difficult to keep track of the numbers of rough sleepers but the data that can be collected shows that there are more people sleeping rough in London every year.

In 2012 a colleague introduced me a local charity in Hackney, Hackney Winter Shelter, which has been run almost completely by volunteers for the past 17 years. I have volunteered there for the past two years, along with the 750 other volunteers who keep the shelter going.  Every year from November to March churches in Hackney open their halls to put up around 84 guests (this year) and serve the guests dinner and breakfast the next morning. Each night the shelter moves to a different church.  Link workers (funded by Hackney Doorways) work with the guests to help them find permanent accommodation and work throughout the year.  This year the shelter served over 2,902 meals and, every Sunday, offered a medical clinic with a visiting volunteer GP – this year there were 68 formal consultations and several informal chats.

Both years I have taken (the not always popular) night shift once a month on a Saturday and with three others stayed up overnight, sleeping for around 4 hours, and then cooked breakfast and packed up the shelter in the morning so that the congregation could use the hall after the service on Sunday. It might seem like an unglamorous task and there was quite a lot of astonishingly loud snoring but any amount of grogginess the next day is more than made up for by knowing that the shelter guests are able to sleep somewhere warm and safe and will wake up to a cooked breakfast.  The other volunteers also helped the nights to pass more quickly – volunteers come from all over Hackney and beyond and some have been volunteering for years. I got the chance to meet Londoners that I would otherwise never have met – the amazing women who cooked and served dinner every Saturday through the winter, the lawyer who had to work all night standing up in the kitchen of the church hall, the banker who normally gets up at five and was unfazed by the 6:30 start on the breakfast shift, the grandmother who has recruited generations of her family to volunteer with her.

It was inspiring to see how such a valuable service can be run successfully on a (largely) voluntary basis and I am very grateful to all those volunteers that gave up their time and warm beds to volunteer with me but it is important to remember that voluntary services are not enough. Housing charities have recently called on the government to take action to ensure that the numbers of people sleeping rough doesn’t continue to rise and on the Mayor of London not to forget his pledge to end homelessness by 2012.