Volunteering at Hatfield Night Shelter: Reporter Mia gets involved
PUBLISHED: 16:29 26 April 2018 | UPDATED: 17:15 26 April 2018
On the eve of its closing, our reporter Mia Jankowicz volunteered at the Hatfield Night Shelter to get a closer look at its plans for the future.
The first sight that greeted me after I was welcomed into the tiny hall at St Luke’s Church, Hatfield, was a table spread with food under the great stained glass window.
The next sight was a very welcome cup of hot tea.
I was there to join the evening and overnight shifts on the penultimate night before this vital community service closed for the spring on Saturday, March 24.
The volunteers for the evening shift, Nova Grove, Sarah Clark, and Naomi Bowler, were already busy in the transept, where in the shadow of the church organ a camp kitchen was set up.
The night’s meals - delicious lentil pies, accompanied by great dollops of mash, gravy and greens - were donated as always from the St Albans charity Emmaus, who over the winter provided an amazing 1,404 meals to the shelter.
In the other transept, behind a screen, were the beds, each warmed by hand-knitted blankets.
Nova, Sarah and Naomi were joined by Dean Norris, linchpin of Welwyn Garden City addiction charity Resolve, and his partner Sandra Burking from Hertford.
Neither Sandra nor Dean were officially on duty, but they have found themselves drawn to the shelter night after night purely to check in with guests who they’ve come to see as good friends.
One guest, John, bounced in beaming from ear to ear to announce that he had secured a job and a room in another city - a major step in the battle to stay off the streets.
Despite language difficulties he beat his chest in gratitude for the help he had received.
He’s not the only one. The night shelter has helped a total of 19 people, 11 of whom have moved on to some form of accommodation.
Underneath the very warm welcome was a distinct sadness that Naomi would explain to me as we sat up wrapped in sleeping bags for the night watch.
The closing of the night shelter for the spring signals a goodbye, not just to a public service, but to a community between the guests and volunteers.
“We’re in contact with each other every day,” said Naomi. “It actually feels lovely to be part of that community. It changes you.”
They are also worried. When the doors closed on Saturday March 24 another five people still had nowhere to go.
One of those was Peter*, who spoke honestly about his struggles with alcohol.
He had kicked the habit, returned to his wife, and had a job, but was undone last winter by an over-insistent friend offering booze one evening.
It was Dean, working with Resolve, who persuaded him to start to seek a way out.
Peter became visibly emotional when he spoke of how he doesn’t want his children to see him on the streets.
As we sat up wrapped in sleeping bags for the night watch, Naomi talked about the shelter’s future.
“It breaks my heart to say that we have to close our doors, but we don’t have the infrastructure to become a year-round hostel,” said Naomi.
Hatfield Night Shelter has inspired the entire community as a project made almost entirely out of love - relying on the donation of everything from meals to blankets to volunteer time and skills, to the church hall itself.
In this way it has escaped enormous burdens of both red tape and high costs.
Initially envisaged as a winter-only project, the calls to keep the shelter open year-round have grown.
But the prospect of a more permanent service raises questions about how sustainable its currentway of working can be.
One of the shelter’s biggest challenges has been securing enough volunteers, particularly for the night shifts.
While around 300 people attended a training event in November 2017, 100 of those joined a shift, and a far smaller group formed a core. Between them, they clocked over four and a half thousand hours of volunteer time.
According to Naomi, at one point the shelter was an hour away from closing its doors because a night shift volunteer couldn’t be found.
Thankfully, someone came through at the last minute, but it revealed a pressing need.
The church, too, needs its space.
I thought about the churchgoers who, having worshipped at St Luke’s all their lives, had to opt to marry - or bury - their loved ones at another venue while the shelter was operational.
It’s the right choice, but an extraordinarily generous one.
A petition started by Lib Dem councillor Barbara Gibson has called on the council to support a more formal night shelter with a more suitable space.
Whatever form it takes, the night shelter plans to be open for winter 2018.
Another, even bigger shadow was hanging over the shelter that night, as it was a lodestone project of the late mayor, Lynne Sparks, who died in February of a rare form of cancer.
Involved in the project every step of the way, Lynne had the determination, political nous, and heart to help make something like this happen.
Every single guest and volunteer I spoke to talked about how much they missed her.
“She knew exactly how to command a room, but equally how to tease the best out of people,” said Naomi.
“She made you feel really special.
“And she had a way where you couldn’t say no to her.”
That night I took up my post in a deckchair at the church altar, trying to keep warm and thinking wistfully of my warm bed at home. Yet it was luxury compared to the prospect ahead of some of the guests.
As I sat in the dark, listening to the gentle symphony of the guests’ snores, I leafed through the volunteers’ log book.
Normally kept at the pulpit, it recorded mundane practical notes on a shift - which guests skipped a meal, who was feeling unwell, is petty cash is running low, a reminder to wake a guest early, grumbles about who left a meal in the microwave overnight.
But viewed another way, it was a four-month long chronicle of what it takes for humans to truly care for each other.
The practical quickly slips into the personal, with little smileys, updates on guests’ emotional states, and moments when volunteers clearly went above and beyond.
Maybe I was over-tired, but I welled up reading the log, as it’s the most human document I’ve ever read.
I closed the book on one volunteer’s note:
“My last shift. :( Hope we did something good.”
*Names have been changed