Quaker Homeless Action Christmas Shelter in London
Every year Quakers run a Christmas Shelter at Union Chapel in Islington, London from
23 to 30 December. This is mostly funded by donations from Quaker Meetings including
Bridgend Meeting. The shelter has 26 beds for homeless people who are referred by
other agencies or self refer, 80 to 100 people come for a good hot evening meal.
The shelter also provides showers, clean clothes and coats, and most importantly
footwear which is brought to order for needy guests. There is a television, cards
and games and sometimes entertainment, some medical help and someone to talk to.
Margins Project for homeless and marginalized people runs from the Chapel all year
round and Christian Action and Response in Society runs shelters through Islington
Churches Cold Weather Scheme. The Pilion Trust are professional outreach workers
for drug and alcohol addiction and mental health needs. We work with volunteers and
paid workers from these organisations.
Who are our guests at the shelter?
Guests come from all areas of the UK and all parts of the world, they are all ages
and some have physical disability. Two thirds of rough sleepers have mental health
difficulties and substance misuse problems. Homelessness has increased recently
due to unemployment, re-possessions, cuts in housing benefit forcing people out of
privately rented property, and relationship breakdown. People may become homeless
when leaving institutions like hospital: 3% of homeless are ex-services; 25% have
been in care; 40% have been in prison. They may be long term unemployed, have had
interrupted education and have poor literacy skills.
The most common reason for women becoming homeless is domestic violence. The people
who come for meals but not to sleep may be “sofa surfers” or squatters in temporary
insecure accommodation, others have paid rent but can not afford food, some are poor
and lonely. Having worked at the shelter for a few years I know some of the regular
guests and local helpers.
What is it like to volunteer at the shelter?
Volunteers are offered accommodation at the Penn Club which has Quaker connections,
we eat there, or serve the guests meals and then sit and eat with them. There is
a great feeling of 'camaraderie” as we travel by bus together to and from shifts.
Many of the same people volunteer every year so it is great to get together with
friends. Most but not all volunteers belong to a Quaker meeting. Shift leaders
allocate duties and then we are very busy cooking, organizing showers, putting up
beds etc. We wear a QHA apron with a first name sticker. When we have a moment we
sit and talk to guests and smile a lot. The shift is over in no time and we go home
tired but still chatting.