The Service section of my Gold Duke of Edinburgh’s award required a twelve month stint doing charitable work in the community, but just what to do was a puzzle to me. I’d collected my silver award by doing a stint behind the till in a charity shop, but I fancied something a bit more challenging. Besides, at that point, being behind the tills was my day job, and I was already starting to get customers coming and going in my dreams.
I tried hospital radio for a bit, but it didn’t really gel. Then I thought I’d try the local homeless shelter, the Winchester Churches Nightshelter, and ended up doing my year’s stint there. In fact, I ended up being so interested that I slept rough outside Winchester Cathedral to raise money for them, came back for multiple shifts during the University holidays, and even got my parents into the routine of cooking for them once in the month. I still look in, if I’ve got a few weeks free and nothing to do.
The nightshelter is well known, but rarely noticed. Its premises are tucked in beside the library – or the Winchester Discovery Centre, if you favour the rebrand – and behind Maison Blanc, bordering on a small car park so busy that the nightshelter parking spaces have to be guarded with multiple traffic cones and religious zeal. Inside there are 17 beds in single and double rooms, showers, laundry facilities, a TV and computer lounge, a dining hall and a kitchen, in addition to the daytime offices. The staff consists of one supervisor, who stays till morning; one or two evening helpers who stay from 6-9pm; an overnighter, who stays from 9pm till morning; and visiting cooks. All but the supervisor are voluntary. The homeless visitors – ‘guests’ in the nightshelter parlance – are breathalised as they come in, and sent for a brisk walk down to the King Alfred statue and back if their blood alcohol content is too high. So it’s never rowdy, and usually ends up being a quiet night in front of the TV in the lounge. They’re an incredibly mixed bunch, of every age and nationality. I’ve met people who’ve been long term homeless and sleeping on the streets; married men and women who’ve been thrown out of the house; men who’ve just got out of prison and need somewhere to go; and even ex-students who could be me in a couple of years (most unnerving). Occasionally you’ll get someone who’s the life of the party, but mostly the guests are a bit glum, or grumpy – and with good reason, to be honest. I’ve met some great people, and I’m always willing to talk if someone wants to, but mostly we leave each other alone.
I started off as an evening helper, and found it a remarkably comfortable and easy way to tick off my award. Once in a while I got asked to make the tea, or do some washing, or help with the meal, but mostly I just sat in the corner with a book or watched whatever’s on TV with the other guests. And then, when dinner’s served, I tend to eat larger portions than any of the homeless! Being an overnighter takes a bit more effort. The room you get is windowless, and usually stifling. There is AC, but hardly anyone knows how to use it, so I usually come in to find the isolator switch turned off and buried behind a mountain of junk. After my first few nights of trying to sleep on the bed, I gave up, and started bringing a sleeping bag and stretching out on the floor, where I can usually get four or five hours of sleep. It’s not exciting, it’s not picturesque and it doesn’t feel particularly philanthropic – until I think that just because I’m here, rolling around in my sleeping bag or sat reading in a clapped-out armchair, 17 people are getting TV, internet, a full meal, and a warm place to stay, who would otherwise be on the streets. If you’re living in Winchester, and can spare a few hours of your evening, you could do a lot worse with your time.