I’ve been reflecting on how the past winter has been different to so many previous winters at Hackney Winter Night Shelter.
In previous years, running the Night Shelter in a different venue each night needed a large team of volunteers, huge energy, and lot of work to set up the hall, cook supper, welcome guests, and then after breakfast in the morning, clearing up and putting everything away until the next week. It was exhausting, and we could only sustain it until the end of March each year, when we would say goodbye to our guests (who had hopefully found accommodation to move on to), and relax until the next winter.
Winter 2020/21 has been very different - and this year, for the first time, the shelter did not close at the end of March. Instead, the shelter has stayed open and continued to operate at the same venue.
This is much better for our guests in so many ways: they can come to the same place each night. They don’t have to drag their bags around all day, but can leave them in their room. They don’t have to cope with many different shelter venues which are inevitably run slightly differently, or sleep on camp beds in a shared, noisy church hall, with minimal privacy. And also, it’s much less stressful for volunteers too: no more assembling camp beds in a rush to get ready, or worrying if all the guests would find their way to the shelter.
But the restrictions needed for running the shelter safely with Covid have made it feel very different over the last winter. I’ve been doing an evening shift at the Night Shelter, and whilst it’s been good to serve supper to our guests, there has been little chance for more interaction.
I miss the times when everyone - guests and volunteers - would sit down to supper together. Of course, after a tiring day, some of our guests didn’t feel like conversation, but with others, over time it felt like we were getting to know them as individuals and breaking down the barrier between guests and volunteers.
My friend Tigger Cullinan, who was a driving force in the early days of the Night Shelter, used to say that she felt our objective was to build “a peaceful community of guests and volunteers”, and that seemed to me to sum up the ethos of Hackney Winter Night Shelter.
I hope, as the restrictions ease, that we will be able to engage more with our guests, and rediscover that sense of shared community in new ways, and the values of welcome and hospitality which have underpinned Hackney Winter Night Shelter from its start.