A number of SoA staff volunteered on World Book Night, along with Sarah Wise and Alison Baverstock, to hand out books and share stories at a London homeless shelter. Sarah’s account of the evening follows.
Staff from the Society of Authors, management committee member Alison Baverstock and myself arrived at the site – an industrial unit off Caledonian Road, north London – on a hot, bright, late afternoon. We turned up just as preparations for dinner were getting under way, and the kitchen area was bustling with volunteers. Dinner is the busiest time of the day, and it’s when the shelter’s 40 or so guests begin to come ‘home’ from their day spent out in the world – working, seeking work, undertaking training, or dealing with the paperwork, meetings and red tape that will allow them to move on with their lives.
We’d come to hand out multiple copies of three fantastic books: David Almond’s Skellig; Minette Walters’ Chickenfeed; and James Bowen’s A Street Cat Named Bob. And we also wanted to talk about books. Guest Glen has read widely on politics and history, and he and I chatted about the General Election, party politics of the past, and what it would take to make homelessness history. Arabella, meanwhile, loves Shakespeare – she was an archaeology student in her native Ghana, and is waiting, waiting, waiting while her application for permission to stay in this – the country she loves – is pondered.
Iris, 21, writes every day. She is enrolled on a creative writing course and pours out stories and observations. 40% of Shelter From the Storm’s guests have been helped back into employment; and Iris works part-time in a local supermarket. As dinner began, we all discussed how books can be another kind of shelter: a shelter for the mind when it is in trauma, or when, as is common with homelessness and joblessness, the brain is under-stimulated. We agreed that books transport us directly into the lives of other people – through reading, we can enter wholly alien experiences, travel to any place in the solar system, to any era – including centuries yet to come.
A little later, Arabella took us on a tour of the women’s dormitory: 21 women sleep here in bunk beds, while on the other side of the TV lounge, a similar room is shared by 23 men. Out in the shared space, games, a snooker table, two PCs, shelves of books and a plasma screen TV have transformed this industrial space into a home.
Guests tend to stay no longer than a month, though it can often take much longer to find a safe place to move on to. A number of them have returned as volunteers – never forgetting how this wonderful place helped them to get back on their feet. It’s lonely, exhausting and frightening, sleeping on the streets. Glen was never attacked, but always felt vulnerable; he told us that the tendency was for rough-sleepers to settle in as close proximity as possible to each other in case of attack.
Sheila Scott co-founded Shelter from the Storm eight years ago, and relies entirely on donations and volunteers. It is open every night of the year to provide a warm bed and a hot dinner to those who are referred to them by the authorities – including hospitals, domestic violence units, the Red Cross, the police. Trafficking, slavery, the loss of benefits, chronic sickness, bereavement, disability, family breakdown and substance abuse are just some of the traumatic experiences that have left guests without access to a permanent roof over their head.
People with specialist expertise in housing, employment and access to education also involve themselves on a pro bono basis on behalf of those in the shelter, and there is an in-house legal clinic and in-house counsellor.
It’s amazing work they’re doing – and they get no help from any other source except donors and volunteers. As we walked back to Caledonian Road and the journey home, all of us who visited discussed how overwhelmed we were by what we had just witnessed. Thank you to all the guests, to Sheila and the volunteers for letting us interrupt dinner-time, and allowing us see the wonderful work you do.
* It costs £10 per guest per day to provide a warm bed, breakfast, a hot evening meal, showers and a wide range of services. Please donate, if you can, to help keep this shelter open.