‘I’d be dead if it wasn’t for the Care Shelter, I’d have frozen’

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Providing a safe place to sleep, a hot meal and a range of support is much more than just a bed for the night, writes Cameron Black

This winter, 746 people (82 per cent men and 18 per cent women) have accessed the fixed term Care Shelter run by homelessness charity, ­Bethany Christian Trust.

For the past 32 weeks, the ­Edinburgh-based Care Shelter has supported hundreds of people who were faced with the crisis of rough sleeping. Providing a safe place to sleep, a hot meal and a range of ­support from experienced staff and 12 partner agencies, the Care Shelter has prepared a total of 15,680 meals and provided 13,118 bed spaces for people who would otherwise have been sleeping rough in Edinburgh.

The Care Shelter is currently ­operated by a team of 14 professional support staff and relies on around 1,000 volunteers from 72 churches across the Lothians.

This year’s fixed season location at Diadem on Gorgie Road ensured that Bethany staff could offer much improved facilities and a safe and warm night’s sleep.

Gorgie Dalry Stenhouse Church generously provided the premises which was a former parish church, and installed new toilets, shower rooms and laundry facilities. ­Bethany sought and received ­sufficient donations to purchase raised single beds, mattresses and bedding.

The Care Shelter regularly ­supported more than 70 individuals a night during the coldest months and averaged 59 people nightly across the whole season.

Started in Edinburgh in 1996 with a two-week pilot over Christmas, Bethany’s Care Shelter has grown to 32 weeks in response to need and is a lifeline for hundreds of people who would otherwise be forced to sleep outside in the cold. To date, the Care Shelter has provided more than 104,000 bed spaces in total, with over 13,000 beds provided this past season alone.

Since re-opening in September 2018, the Care Shelter has supported more than 650 people in moving on from needing to access the ­service again. The total number of ­people supported this season was 746, with 252 of those people staying at the service for only one night, and another 230 staying for a total of ­seven nights or less.

The partnership approach ­combined with the professional Care Shelter support staff, who work tirelessly and compassionately on behalf of others, results in this positive move on journey for guests at the Care Shelter.

People who stay at the Care ­Shelter often remark on how much they appreciate not only shelter from the elements, hot food and warmth but also the care shown.

One ­woman, Rowena, commented: “I met so many good people at the Care ­Shelter. After having nowhere it was amazing to sleep in a proper bed, eat good food and ­experience the genuine love from staff whilst I was there. They all ­supported me.” Rowena was ­supported to move in to a resettlement flat within Bethany House.

The project is dependent on the tremendous goodwill of more than 1,000 volunteers from the Christian community, who also provide the fresh ingredients for the two course hot meals prepared at the venue.

Rab tells us about his time volunteering: “The experience of being a volunteer at the Care Shelter is ­personally very rewarding. It is great to be part of something that addresses the plight of homelessness in a practical way by providing food and shelter for those who, for a variety of reasons, end up on the streets.

“The people we serve at the Care Shelter all have their own unique stories that have ended up with them being homeless. Listening to them motivates you to try and do more to support the people. That’s what I like about Bethany in that, whilst it responds to people when they are homeless in practical ways, they pursue supporting people into finding a home for themselves and having a good quality of life in it”.

The Care Shelter doesn’t work in isolation. As well as the church ­partnership which crosses all denominations, there are 12 ­statutory and charity partners which have been instrumental to the success of the work. Jane and some of the team from Edinburgh Access Practice, the GP practice for homeless and vulnerably-housed people across Edinburgh, attend the Care Shelter once a week on a ­Monday evening.

This is an example of one of many important connections between services that support people attending the Care Shelter. Jane emphasised the importance of the ­partnership, saying: “Through our attendance at the Care Shelter we have supported people in accessing our wider health services, offered advice and support on site and ­provided basic wound management and physical health advice.”

Many of the men and women accessing the Care Shelter have mental health presentations. Jane added: “Through our mental health nurse attendance we have been able to encourage people to get psychological supports when needed, and also advise regarding substance misuse issues including support to access addictions treatment.”

Staff and volunteers at the Care Shelter report that their guests, who have nowhere else to turn ­overnight, express much appreciation for the safety, warmth, support and two course meal. Many describe it as a lifeline, one man reinforcing his awareness that without it he may not have survived the night: “At the end of the day I’d be dead if it wasn’t for the Care Shelter, I’d have ­frozen.”

The gratitude is humbling to the team – “Thank you for keeping me alive this winter” – and the care received is clearly deeply appreciated: “No one has ever cared for me this much.”

Care Shelter manager Ruth ­Longmuir said: “The Care Shelter exists to prevent people from ­having to sleep rough during the coldest months when there is a potential risk to life.

“Sadly, this has been the busiest season for the Care Shelter since it began 22 winters ago. The Care Shelter meets an immediate and urgent need and provides multiple pathways out of homelessness for people in a rough sleeping crisis.

“We are grateful to our partner organisations who visit the Care Shelter on a regular basis and ­provide specialist support including medical, employment, housing ­support and advice.”

The Care Shelter operational costs are funded by the voluntary ­donations of trusts and ­foundations, individuals, local churches, ­companies, communities, and national government grants, as well as receiving support from the ­Caring Christmas Trees project.

Alasdair Bennett, chief executive of Bethany Christian Trust, said: “The collective cross-sector ­motivation to end homelessness is very high, and yet we have seen a greater number of unique individuals supported at the Care Shelter in 2019 than in any previous year.

“Greater investment and action is needed by all of us to reverse this trend. Today I want to sincerely thank all the staff and church ­volunteer teams who have ­communicated hope and kindness to our guests and who, together with our 12 partner agencies, have been very successful in rapidly re-accommodating hundreds of people.”

Established in 1983, Bethany Christian Trust supports almost 7,000 people each year across ­Scotland.

Cameron Black is director of crisis intervention at Bethany Christian Trust.