So this is where I am today, Friday morning having spent the night at the Hackney Autumn Night Shelter. My fellow overnight volunteer and I divide the hours into two shifts. For the first half I stay up with my knitting in the light from the kitchen door, left ajar. The guests are coughing and spluttering, getting up and bedding down, wandering about in their underpants, swinging the squeaky door to the toilets. Our guests are astonishingly vulnerable: one wets the bed, can barely straighten himself up, can hardly pull himself up the stairs. Then there are the young ones. In the morning we strip the dampish bedding, damp from the night of coughing and spluttering and fevers.
Going to spend the night at the night shelter is like visiting another country. I think oh, how many hours until I can go home to my nice warm bed. But then my bed is at the other end of a cold bike ride. Then at three it’s my turn and I settle into the camp bed, the same flowery duvet and pillow case that all the guests have, thirsty from the roaring heater but soothed by the sound of regular breathing, that gets slower and slower. And we enter the quietest part of the night, around four. Extreme quiet settles over the group.
Angry that so many vulnerable people have only a camp bed in a church hall to sleep on, rickety joints not well, chesty, asthmatic, too young, too elderly and infirm. Just today Cameron proposes no benefits for EU migrants for four years after arrival. Two polish men get up at six, grab a sandwich from the breakfast team, and set off for work. None of these friendly people should be sleeping in a church hall.
It’s unsustainable that’s what it is. Piles of washing, armfuls of volunteers, church hall heating full blast through the night, cooked breakfast, wet socks, wet coats. The health risks from staying out all day in the winter, are a cost, not just physical.
Some of the guests help clear away the folding chairs and tables, swinging them quickly into place, experts at leaving no trace, everything spick and span in the twinkling of an eye. Others sit motionless, watching, waiting for the last possible moment before they will be chucked out.
It’s a terrible violence against the poorest, most vulnerable, infirm. It’s a terrible violence, that someone elderly and infirm is not cared for, getting worse not better. It’s not possible to have any worthy thoughts about any of this. It’s only my own experience, sleeping on the same creaky camp bed, tip toeing to the same freezing church hall loo – someone’s been smoking in the toilets again – that makes me realise sorrow and anger. I don’t have to see anything; I just have to remember that if I’m longing to reach my own warm bed, my own kitchen table, then what must the guests experience night after night.