With whom did you stand?

With whom did you stand?

12 April 2023 by Revd Mike Barter in Health, Homelessness.

In the run up to our event Out Of The Pandemic - Church Perspectives on Homeless Support we are exploring, and celebrating the manifold ways our London church communities support those who experience, or are at risk of homelessness.

In this fourth blog in our series, Revd Mike Barter reflects on the blessings and the challenges of the season for Ealing Churches Winter Night Shelter, which they have run as a “mixed model” this year to continue to support street homeless guests.

Do join us on 26th April where we will come together as church communities together to both celebrate, & reflect on provision for those who experience homelessness. You can sign up HERE

Reflections at the End of A Winter Night Shelter Season

Freezing temperatures, reduced numbers of venues and volunteers and an unprecedented cost of living crisis.

These were the biggest challenges facing staff, trustees and volunteers at the Ealing Churches Winter Night Shelter this year.

The Ealing Churches Winter Night Shelter (ECWNS) has been operating since 2011 as a practical, grassroots Christian response to homelessness across the borough.

For almost a decade, more than twenty churches have opened their doors to provide food, accommodation and practical support to street homeless guests daily throughout the winter months. Aided by some 400 volunteers across denominations.

But the post-pandemic environment changed much of that.

The Impact of the Pandemic

As temperatures plunged and this winter approached, the most pressing problem we faced this year was identified by our administrator Yvonne:

“getting enough churches involved to fill the rota” in a post Covid environment.

Many previously committed ECWNS churches were still reeling from the impact that the pandemic had (and continues to have) on both their finances and volunteer commitments.

A Mixed Model Experiment

Thankfully, enough volunteers and venues came forward to be able to run the shelter as a “mixed model” this season.

This meant guests were able to spend at least half a week in available church venues, and the other half at a local hotel in the borough.

We were unsure how popular or effective this model would be in practice.

But as time went on, some benefits became apparent. ECWNS chair Nilesh observes that “hotels gave the guests more individual space, safety and time to rest” than the church venues could provide.

Whereas church venues worked as a social space where guests could receive practical advice, support and “some feeling of being part of a community” notes Shelter Worker Marie.

And crucially, a sense of fellowship - “not being ostracised due to them being homeless.”

Stories of Hope

Alongside generally positive response from guests to the mixed model approach, there have been some hopeful and inspiring stories:

“We’ve managed to house 2 guests, with the possibility of housing 4 more.

We’ve also managed to get eye tests, dental treatments, and medical prescriptions for our guests.

Two other guests realised that the addiction path that they were on was not sustainable; one is now working, and the other attending a drug and alcohol reduction course.”

Marie, Shelter Worker, ECWNS

Nilesh was particularly thankful for the remarkable response from church volunteers, especially after such an uncertain start:

“It’s been amazing how some churches have undertaken a few more weeks-some even months more- than they have previously done.

We had less available venues this year- but those involved were incredibly committed and extremely generous.”

Nilesh Patel, chair of ECWNS

Challenges in our Midst

Alongside these blessings, there have of course been challenges.

According to one shelter worker, the biggest challenge has been the poor health of several guests.

It has been a real struggle this year to support those “guests to realise how ill they are, and to accept the help that is on offer to them…but.at least the shelter can make sure they are as healthy as possible- before they have to go back out on the streets again.”

But Always God’s Presence

Throughout the highs and the lows of the season, the living, moving presence of God has been made known.

As one volunteer affirmed: “God has been present in the guests, the volunteers, the buildings; and through the support of our shelter staff.”

Present with our guests, as they constantly move from place to place: (Joshua 1:9)

Present at the dinner table and in the breaking of bread; (Luke 24:35)

Present in the lives and faces of all those who are still so often rejected and stigmatised as “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

The Journey on

It feels very poignant to me that it is usually in Lent that our Shelter scheme comes to an end.

Just as Christ begins his journey into the wilderness, our guests pack up the few belongings they have, and are on the move again.

As one volunteer said to me recently “we can learn a lot from the homeless”.

Amen to that.

I’d like to thank all our guests, our volunteers, our staff and trustees for their fellowship this year. Too many to name, but thank you.

And as we pray and reflect about what’s next for ECWNS, I wanted to leave you with a question to pray and reflect on, for all Christians concerned about the ongoing problem of homelessness in 21st century London:

“In the end, the crucial question, especially for those who claim the name of Christ, will be: ‘with whom did you stand?’”

Ken Leech, 1939-2015


You can find out more about the work of Ealing Churches Winter Night Shelter, and give to their work here, and you can find them on twitter: @ecwns

Revd Mike Barter

Revd Mike Barter

Mike is the priest in charge of St Matthew’s in Ealing, and a trustee of Ealing Winter Night Shelter. Prior to ordination he worked for the charity Stonepillow, who work to empower the homeless and vulnerably housed in West Sussex.

View all posts by Revd Mike Barter

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