Durham student opens Winter Night Shelter

By Anna Marshall

The Durham Winter Night Shelter, located at the Methodist Church on North Road, is preparing to open again for the upcoming winter.

The shelter provides emergency accommodation to homeless people in Durham City throughout the season.  When the temperature falls below 0°C, the shelter opens and is staffed by volunteers, many of whom are students.

Alastair Taylor, Leader of Durham Winter Night Shelter, told Palatinate: “During my gap year I worked with a homeless charity in Glasgow, although I was never directly involved in the night-time shelter. When I came to Durham and saw the homeless crisis here, I felt we could establish something similar. I spoke to the council and they were very supportive, and agreed that there was a need for more action in Durham.”

There was a need for more action in Durham

Over 30% of the volunteers for the shelter are students, but Alastair’s public charity has been established as North East Mission. 

The shelter operates with a rota of volunteers who commit to being available if the shelter opens, so that when it drops below freezing point, there will be a group ready to escort people into the temporary accommodation provided by Durham’s churches.

 Alastair stated: “It’s always a worry that students go home during Christmas, so there are less volunteers during those weeks, but I believe we will be able to successfully meet demand and stay open as needed this year.”

The shelter provides an opportunity for student volunteers and homeless people to interact.  Alastair told Palatinate: “Talking to homeless people shouldn’t be awkward. If you decide there is a deep division between yourself and the person who finds themselves homeless, there will be an initial awkwardness there. 

We are conning ourselves if we think this is okay or that the fault lies with those on the streets

“However, the people that I meet have shown me that we find ourselves in these situations for a complex number of reasons – and these people could easily come from backgrounds like your own.”

In the past, Durham Police have cautioned that those seen begging in Durham may be con-artists. Alastair has argued for the public to consider this more deeply before making judgements over those who find themselves homeless. 

“There is a difference between homelessness and begging, although these two categories sometimes overlap – there is a difference,” Alastair stated. 

We are often looking at victims of severe trauma

 “In terms of begging, ‘con-artist’ is an interesting phrase, if these people are part of a society which has caused their best option to be begging, I would ask you whether or not the society is the ‘con’. If we have got ourselves to a point where begging is usual, where homelessness is normal, we are conning ourselves if we think this is okay or that the fault lies with those on the streets.

Alastair continued: “In my experience, we are often looking at victims of severe trauma, where children and young people have not been supported properly.”

“There has therefore been repeated prison sentences which don’t dig into the deeper issues, and after years of various problems left untreated, these people find themselves with no other option but to beg or to sleep on the streets. Who is the con-artist in this? People sometimes have temporary accommodation or are only semi-homeless – that is still not a desirable way to live, and society has failed them.”

These people could easily come from backgrounds like your own

According to the housing charity ‘Shelter’, homelessness in Britain annually increases by 4%, which is around 13,000 on average more people every year since 2016. North East Mission are aware their overnight shelter currently only touches the surface of the change needed to end the homelessness crisis. 

“To truly reverse the psychological trauma which has led many people down this path, would require the funding for extensive counselling services and rehabilitation. I see two options: we can either ask our government to organise a centrally coordinated approach to make this change universal – by investing huge sums of money – or give charities the support to allow them to intervene more directly in people’s lives and make change on a case-by-case basis. 

“I would love for the North East Mission to be allowed time to take these homeless citizens away for 12 months, and deal with them personally, to make lasting, positive change – but we need the backing to do so. This issue can only be solved with a lot of effort.”

Photographs provided by Durham Winter Night Shelter

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