SARAH SINGLETON meets a woman who, inspired by her faith, is on a mission to offer homeless people the best practical help she can

As the nights lengthen and temperatures plummet, the suffering of Swindon’s rough sleepers grows ever more intolerable.

While commuters hurry home, and families are drawing curtains on the world, those trapped on the outside are longing for warmth and comfort, dignity and security.

It can be hard to maintain a sense of worth when you are huddled in a doorway and the passers-by look through you, intent only on their own concerns.

It was this understanding that prompted Becky Davison to set up the Swindon Night Shelter in 2008.

Inspired by her Christian faith and touched by the plight of Swindon’s homeless, she decided to offer practical help.

Nearly a decade on, the night shelter in St Mary’s Church Hall, Cheney Manor Road, regularly houses 40 people.

Not only does it offer a bed for the night, the shelter provides hot food, fresh clean clothes, a shower and food to take away – as well as the chance to relax and chat.

Recently the project expanded with a new café called The Gate, in the old children’s centre at Goddard Park Community primary school, Park North.

The next step is to open a Pay-As-You-Can Shop, where people on low incomes and those moving into new accommodation can pick up supplies for their homes at an affordable price. This will be situated in the Swindon Night Shelter project’s headquarters, at BSS House on the Cheney Manor Industrial Estate.

“The new café has been really busy,” Becky says.

“It’s open to everyone – one day a week at the moment and we serve breakfasts, lunches, cake and coffee.

“We have staff from the local school coming in, and members of the general public.

“Those that can pay help support the project and enable us to help those facing homelessness or needing support.”

The Gate is open on Thursdays, 8.30am to 10.30am for breakfast, and 11am to 2pm for lunch.

It also offers opportunities for work experience, and it can offer support and information to people at risk of losing their home. Early help can sometimes prevent someone landing on the street.

The success of the café means the organisers are looking for more volunteers, especially those who are trained in the food industry.

“We hope to extend the project in other areas of Swindon. This one’s in Park North but we would like to open another in Penhill, in January if possible,” Becky explains.

From a small start as a night shelter, the project has widened its remit to provide much longer term support for those who need it.

This might involve sharing information, providing home furnishings or liaising with a landlord when rent is overdue or a bill has not been paid.

The very first guest who walked through the door of the night shelter still gets in touch from time to time, Becky says.

“We work closely with Threshold, the Salvation Army and Swindon Borough Council.

“More guests are coming to us – we have seen an increase. Mental health is a big issue that leads to homelessness, and family breakdown.

“We are a Christian organisation and we see there is a lack of community and people are so lonely and separate.

“There is a need for a service that’s outside the council.

“We are self-supporting and rely on donations, so we can be more flexible with our time and approach. The council has rules and targets and time-limits – and we don’t.

“We can build up trust and relationship. We can help people feel engage again.

“The guy who’s yelling and screaming in the corner? We can help him build bridges.

“A lot of people have tried to get help before — and failed. We want to give people hope – to help them realise that just because it didn’t work last time, it doesn’t mean they should give up.”

Becky, 45, has known challenging times herself and it helps her relate to the troubles faced by guests at the night shelter.

She worked as a special needs teacher in schools, and has suffered from depression in the past.

“During my work, I come across people who are struggling with challenges like depression and anxiety.

“I came to know the Lord about 15 years ago after I had a breakdown and found myself in a rehabilitation centre,” she said.

Becky and her family found help and support at the North Swindon Baptist Church, and she said her faith helped her make sense of the world and her situation.

With her husband Phil, she joined the Street Pastors in 2007, going out on Friday and Saturday nights to meet people and to make sure they were safe.

“This wasn’t about homelessness and not evangelistic – we just wanted to do something in the local community,” she explains.

This work, however, soon revealed how many homeless people were sleeping on Swindon’s streets.

“We used to be out till 4am and we got to see the same people and where they slept. We started thinking, there must be something we can do.”

Becky and fellow co-founders Faith and Jason O’Sullivan, and Rachel Kay, thought about all the churches closed at night and wondered if they might persuade one to open its doors. They had a meeting with all the churches, and St Mary’s said their church hall could serve as a night shelter.

It is now well equipped for the purpose – with a washing machine and hot showers.

“A lot of the guests attend services there. The church is very supportive and recognises the issues people are facing. They even let dogs into the church.”

“We support people into housing as well, but that is just the first step.

“Then they may, for example, have to face the problems that drove them into addiction, or access education, and they still need family and support.

“When you face difficulties – that’s when you need people who understand,” Becky says.

She stresses, however, that there is no “typical homeless person”.

Some have mental health issues or addictions, others are Europeans who came looking for work, and some

are professional people who have found themselves in difficult circumstances.

“It can happen to anyone,” she says.

Swindon Night Shelter has only two part-time employees – an administrator and a van driver.

All the rest of the work, including Becky’s full time running of the project, is voluntary.

In the café, collecting donations, running the night shelter – the charity relies on the time and commitment of around 120 people.

The charity also relies on the generosity of many local stores and organisations, who donate food and end-of-line goods to help improve the lives of homeless people.

Now they are looking for help in the café, and a volunteer with the skills to improve and update the website.

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