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1 March 2018

This past week, as snow fell on the capital, having somewhere safe and warm to sleep became all the more urgent.

Every day, someone new walks through the doors of our partner drop-ins looking for shelter, a meal and a chance to get out of the cold for a few hours. The office is being flooded with an increasing number of calls from individuals looking to see if we have spaces in our shelters.

Last night, 142 guests slept in a Glass Door shelter, the largest number to date in the history of the charity. St Augustine's church on Queen's Gate alone took in 87 guests, while two other churches sheltered an additional 55. On  27 February, 132 individuals found refuge in a Glass Door shelter and about 140 guests joined Monday 26 February. 

Usually, we have space for 115-120, thanks to the addition in January of another rolling shelter circuit in Richmond, which has space for up to 20 individuals a night. Last year, we had space for up to 100 guests a night. 

"We have a cold-weather emergency procedure that allows our shelters to take in as many people as the space safely allows," says Neil Parkinson, Glass Door's senior caseworker. Speaking to the danger of sleeping rough in sub-zero temperatures, Neil adds:

When it's freezing outside, there's a very real risk you may not wake up in the morning.  

However, church space is not unlimited. We are only able to move someone off the waiting list and give them a secured space in the shelters when someone else moves on (for example, when a caseworker helps a guest find more permanent housing). Despite being the largest network of church-based emergency winter night shelters in the UK, Glass Door receives far more requests for shelter than we have spaces.

David, 27, is one of the lucky ones. If he hadn't received a space in the night shelters, he'd probably be walking around all night on the streets, trying to keep moving as temperatures dip to -4 degrees. He said:

When I was in the army, we learned that you don't want to lie down when it's this cold.

Cold reality

What about all those that can't find a space in a night shelter? Jeff, a regular drop-in guest, said he'll spend the night riding the night buses. Peter, a well-dressed man in his fifties, said he knows a warm spot in a church-crypt. 

During the month of February, about nine new individuals a day joined the waiting list. Our waiting list is open to all; you do not need a referral from an outside organisation. This means that those who are not eligible elsewhere at least have a chance to find a spot at a Glass Door shelter.

But as homelessness rises (official figures indicate the number of people sleeping rough has tripled in ten years), services struggle to keep pace with the surge in demand. Some of the individuals on the waiting list for a space in the Kensington and Chelsea shelter circuit have been waiting for more than three weeks. (Waiting times for a space in the Richmond and Wandsworth shelters are significantly shorter.)

Daytime services

This morning, the Chelsea Methodist Church drop-in opened at 7:30am, a full 90 minutes earlier, to accommodate those that have no where else to go. When the shelters are full and many have little choice but to ride night buses or stay awake all night, having somewhere to go during the daytime becomes even more important.

Like Glass Door's night shelters, the drop-in daytime centres with whom we partner are open to all. The centres provide free showers, dry socks, hot meals and access to trained caseworkers who provide advice and support. 

"I can't tell you how much having this place means," says Jeff, indicating to the busy central space at the Chelsea Methodist Church on Kings Road. And it's not just the services that make a difference; it's the company too. He says:

It's like a second home. We look out for each other.

note: Some names have been changed to protect anonymity.

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