Guests enjoy warm welcome at Mayfair church
Farm Street Church hall in central London was transformed into a dining room and then a dormitory as the parish welcomed 15 guests as part of the Night Shelter Project. It was one of seven churches – and a local synagogue – which served meals supplied by local hotels and restaurants and provided somewhere to sleep for people who would otherwise have spent the night on the streets of London.
The Monday night initiative which took place over seven weeks this spring was a trial project in anticipation of a similar scheme running weekly throughout the winter months, when the weather conditions will be more inclement. The guests were referred by the West London Day Centre, which provides a place for homeless people to drop-in for breakfast, and case workers to offer advice on matters such as housing, skills development and educational opportunities. They were all termed ‘low risk’, that is, did not have a dependency on drugs or alcohol and when they arrived at the church hall in Mount Street they were welcomed with tea and soup.
Entitled to respect as individuals
“The atmosphere among the guests and the volunteers was extremely positive – even fun,” says Farm Street’s Coordinator Scott McCombe. “While the Day Centre offers a very practical service, people who go there are inevitably called ‘clients’ as staff offer them support and advice, to us they were ‘guests’, individuals that we welcomed into our home and who were entitled to respect as human beings. On each occasion, there was a social feeling to the evening and both guests and volunteers found the experience very rewarding.”
Volunteers were invited personally by the parish priest, Father Andrew Cameron-Mowat SJ and the Chair of the Parish Council Mrs Pauline Mercieca. “We were never short of people offering to volunteer,” explains Scott, “especially among younger parishioners and members of First Sunday Plus – the Jesuits’ Young Adults Ministry. They spent time chatting socially to the 15 guests before serving a main course and a pudding prepared by local kitchens. Four volunteers then spent the night in the Mount Street premises in case there were any problems – but there never were.”
No typical rough sleepers
The meals were provided free by hotels and restaurants in Mayfair and the parish had bought inflatable beds, sleeping bags and pillows at a special discount price. These were allocated to each guest and stored in the church hall after the dormitory was dismantled.
“Guests came from a broad range of backgrounds and nationalities,” according to Scott. “They included people of all ages – some professionals who had fallen on hard times, others who were sofa-surfers who had been relying on friends for a night’s sleep. There was no ‘typical’ rough sleeper among our guests; but all of them were treated with respect and were given a warm welcome.”
After a light breakfast, the guests dispersed to the Day Centre where they had the opportunity to enjoy a shower and a more substantial meal. Many of them compared the facilities at the various places of worship where they had spent the night and engaged in light-hearted competitiveness over which provided newspapers or supplied the best pastries.
“To have been able to have supplied these amenities for these guests over the seven weeks was a real blessing,” Scott McCombe says. “Many of them had arrived feeling nervous and introverted, but their experience of community and welcome had a very positive effect upon all of them. But the volunteers got almost as much out of the experience. Some of them expected it to be quite traumatic – full of doom and gloom; so they were pleasantly surprised to discover it was a really wonderful, joyful atmosphere at Farm Street as they interacted with their guests.”