Video: Homeless offered a warm welcome at Christmas by church volunteers

Volunteers are rallying at the night shelters in Ipswich.
L-R Gemma Spencer, Bernadette Ross Smith,

Volunteers are rallying at the night shelters in Ipswich. L-R Gemma Spencer, Bernadette Ross Smith, Amy Lewis and Emily Scott. - Credit: Archant

Over the next three months, 480 volunteers will notch up more than 7,500 hours of service at the seven night shelters opening at churches around the town this winter.

Rev Canon Paul Daltry.

Rev Canon Paul Daltry. - Credit: Archant

So, come Christmas Day you would expect them to take a day off, time to enjoy the festivities with their friends and family.

But on December 25 a stoic band of volunteers will instead throw open the doors at Burlington Baptist Church and offer the town’s most vulnerable residents somewhere warm and dry to spend the day, offer them a hot meal and a friendly welcome.

Rev Canon Paul Daltry, Minister for Church and Community Engagement within the St Edmundsbury and Ipswich Diocese, said: “They will have a day of activities so those who are rough sleepers, or are in short-term accommodation, have somewhere to go, instead of being on their own all day.”

And come Christmas night there will be a bed for those who need one thanks to the Ipswich Winter Night Shelter project.

The shelter scheme is now in it’s third year, explained Rev Daltry. In the first year, they helped 37 people and last year they saw 42 different people come through the doors.

We opened on December 4 and a different church opens every night ,” he said. “We have a few people who have been coming from the first night, and we have some who we know from previous years, but we are also seeing new faces, which is worrying. And some nights we have to turn people away who we are not able to help.”

He added: “One of the reasons to run the shelter is to give us a snapshot of the demand. The plan has always been to try and diminish the number of rough sleepers in Ipswich.”

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For some of the guests taking advantage of the churches hospitality, the only alternative would be sleeping in a shop doorway.

But the churches also take in a group that they call ‘the forgotten homeless.

“These people are sometimes referred to as sofa surfers,” said Rev Daltry. “They may sleep in cars some nights, or have friends who will put them up from time to time, they may dip in and out of rough sleeping.

“And when they do, they sleep where it is difficult to find them. You won’t find them in a shop doorway or on a park bench, they might be sleeping in tents or tucked away behind an electricity substation.”

The Homelessness Partnership look out for these extremely vulnerable members of our community and encourage them to book into the night shelters.

“We have beds for between 10 and 12 people each night, and people have to book in and then arrive between 7pm and 7.30pm,” said Rev Daltry.

“But we don’t always see the people who are booked in, some of them live quite chaotic lives.”

Last year the group appealed for donations of soap, toothbrushes, bedding, towels, clothes and food and were inundated with supplies.

This year they are appealing for cash donations to help pay for dinners, insurance, travel costs and heating for some of the churches that need extra help to keep guests warm.

“We are amazed by the generosity people have shown, we have had four-figure donations from private donations, and we also get help from the Suffolk Community Foundation.”

For Rev Daltry, one particular case sticks in his minds and reminds him why the churches open their doors.

“We had one person who was in for the first year and again last year. When we first saw him he had a tent hidden in a back area of Ipswich and he came in and said ‘last night was so cold and frosty that it was wetter inside my tent than I would have been if I had slept outside’.

“He had been out on the streets for a long time but we helped him and now he is in his own place. I saw him a few weeks ago and he is happy and contended. His life is back together and for me that is brilliant.”

Amy Lewis and Emily Scott, both members of St Margaret’s Church, in Ipswich, are volunteering for the second time this year.

Emily said: “I think it is important to help out, especially at Christmas.

“People have this diea in their head about homeless people and they might try and avoid them so for some of the guests it is just nice to have someone new to talk to, but others don’t want to talk, they just want a warm bed for the night.”