I spent a night with volunteers at Rugby's Winter Night Shelter and learned how our town's homeless people really feel

Shelter users toast with glasses of squash as they enjoy a home-cooked vegetable stew.
Shelter users toast with glasses of squash as they enjoy a home-cooked vegetable stew.

It’s Saturday night, somewhere around 10pm, and I'm at Rugby's Winter Night Shelter to see firsthand how the homeless people of our town are being helped by selfless volunteers.

Rugby council had enacted its severe weather protocol earlier in the week but we are not sure if the temperature will drop below zero.

Volunteers, left to right: Stan Bird, Ellie Bird, Alistair Kerr, Howard Binns, Irene Carr, Baraba Cunningham, Mike Fielding and, on the bed, a guest at the shelter.

Volunteers, left to right: Stan Bird, Ellie Bird, Alistair Kerr, Howard Binns, Irene Carr, Baraba Cunningham, Mike Fielding and, on the bed, a guest at the shelter.

“Do not worry about anything else, now we only think about the game,” says a grey-haired man to his opponent as they both stare intently at the newly-placed chess board separating them.

The man occasionally struggles with English, which is not his first language, but he plays chess fluently and within 15 minutes he’s won.

He smiles, shakes his opponent’s hand and goes to get a drink - two teaspoons of coffee powder in half a mug of water.

His opponent was Stan Bird, a volunteer team leader with Rugby’s Winter Night Shelter.

Without the work of people like Stan, the chess player now enjoying a coffee would likely spend the night at the mercy of the cold outside.

The shelter runs seven days a week at various churches during winter – ending for the year on March 31.

On Saturdays it is the turn of the town’s Methodist church.

Winter is beginning to bite and the volunteers were expecting one of their busiest nights since they opened their doors in December.

I later found out that 18 people were given a warm meal and ten people were given a bed for the night.

The evening consists of dinner at around 7.30pm and the chance to chat and play board games until lights out at around 10.30pm.

Health problems took DC from a high-paying job to homelessness

“Without the shelter there’s no end to the cold nights,” a well-spoken young-looking man, known as DC to his friends, tells me.

“It’s reassuring to know that facilities like this exist, but it’s like the help for rough sleepers is losing a funding battle.”

DC served a stint in the military before going on to work as a well-paid recruitment consultant for 11 years.

But the job placed an enormous amount of pressure on him and his mental health deteriorated to the point he could no longer work.

“I paid my rent and bills on time for years, but as soon as the money ran out my landlord wasn’t interested,” he adds.

DC has been homeless since September last year. He moves between sofa-surfing where possible and sleeping rough, sometimes in doorways, when his luck runs out.

He tells me the council has not helped him as yet because he is not originally from Rugby.

Should you give money to homeless people?

When asked what a member of the public should do if they see someone in the streets and would like to help, DC says you should not give them money – other guests in the room agree.

Those in the room say there is a high chance the money will be spent on alcohol or drugs.

"The people of Rugby are mostly brilliant," DC says. “The best thing to do is talk to people, bring them a sausage roll or ask them if they need anything.”

Some rough sleepers get so desperate they consider squatting

Another man tells me that he stays in a tent away from town,and leaves no litter or trace of his being there, but is still asked to move on.

The man tells me some of Rugby’s rough sleepers get so desperate that they begin to consider squatting.

DC is full of praise for volunteers at the night shelter, as are the others.

Rugby council will provide emergency accommodation for the homeless, occasionally in a nearby Travelodge, but some people tell me the night shelter is better as they get a warm meal and a chance to speak to others in a similar situation.

Hope 4 runs the shelter

The night shelter is run by volunteers from Hope 4, the Rugby-based charity which supports the badly-housed and the homeless.

Stan has been a volunteer since the shelter began operating eight years ago.

He says when it first opened they had very few guests.

“It’s held in churches, so maybe they didn’t know what to expect.

“They might have thought we were going to try to convert them.”

Stan and several guests tell me that the shelter is known among the homeless people of the town through word of mouth.

This became clear when I saw the trust and friendship that had developed between the volunteers and the guests.

Stan said the priority for the volunteers is to ensure that both guests and volunteers are safe at all times.

There will be at least one volunteer awake through the night to ensure guests are safe, and volunteers can phone a key worker from Hope 4 at any time should they need advice or assistance.

Could you volunteer?

The night shelter has 200 volunteers overall, with around 40 volunteers for each church.

Volunteers do not have to be churchgoers, and Stan said most people will provide their help every other week.

The shelter runs from around 7pm until around 8.30am – but the time is split between volunteers, so people are not expected to put in a

13-hour shift if they are not able to.

Volunteers are always being sought, and those interested in helping are asked to visit www.hope4.me.uk/index.php/winter-shelter
Hope 4 also supports the food bank and runs the Hope Centre. The latter allows people to shower, do laundry and seek specialist support.

Volunteers, left to right: Stan Bird, Ellie Bird, Alistair Kerr, Howard Binns, Irene Carr, Baraba Cunningham, Mike Fielding.

How you can get a bed for the night

If you are sleeping rough, or if you know someone sleeping rough, you can call Rugby council's emergency hotline on 01788 579706, or visit the Town Hall on Evreux Way during office hours which are: 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Those requiring a bed at the Winter Shelter must register at the Hope Centre, on 8 Newbold Road, before 2pm on the day they require accommodation.

The Hope Centre opens from 11am to 2pm, Monday to Friday, 9am to 11am on Saturdays and 1pm to 4pm on Sundays - you can also call the centre on 01788 572456.