I recently had the opportunity to travel ‘up North’ from our offices in London and spend what turned out to be some truly inspirational time with Lily Axworthy, who coordinates the development work in CUF’s Manchester Joint Venture; Greater Manchester Together.

the positive and upbeat atmosphere was contagious

In recent years, there has been a steady stream of people who, having been made homeless all across the region, are now migrating towards Manchester and Salford City Centres in search of better support, opportunities and, in some cases, the perception of a steadier and wealthier footfall from whom to receive money and food. Figures from an October 2015 count by Manchester City Council suggest that rough sleeping in Manchester had increased by 50% over the past year.

Whilst there are several day centres specialising in support for homeless people in the area, there was a real lack of safe and suitable temporary accommodation in the evening for those who are homeless and at risk of mental and physical ill health, violence, exploitative relationships, drug and alcohol misuse, and the sex trade.

Local authorities only have a legal responsibility to rehouse those who are considered “priority homeless” and have originated from within their geographical boundaries. Two temporary shelters were opened by the council but these were only open to those who fitted certain criteria (e.g. EEA migrants are only admitted if they either have a return date, or are considered likely to find work).

In response to such great need, Greater Together Manchester set up and manages The Greater Manchester Winter Night Shelter (GMWNS), initially for a ten week pilot during winter 15/16 and now again during winter 16/17.

The aim of the shelters is “to develop the culture and practice of Christian hospitality to homeless people that leads to personal transformation, thus providing the foundation for movement away from the streets and towards ‘home’.”

The night shelter is run in close partnership with the Booth Centre, a local day centre that provides help with benefit applications, job searches, alongside activities such as art classes, meaning that together the two projects provide round-the-clock support for people facing homelessness.

Each night’s shelter is staffed entirely by volunteers who set up the venues, prepare and serve food, and welcome and socialise with guests. Guests and volunteers are treated as equals, eating together each evening; no-one is ever behind a counter.

One of the night shelter’s guests actually returned to the project as a volunteer, after he had been found a place in a hostel. For the 2015 pilot alone, 186 volunteers contributed 5,700 hours to the project, at a monetary value of £75,240).

I accompanied Lily to see one of this winter’s night shelters at close to the city centre. Even as a visitor I was very ready to get away from the freezing, dark streets of the estate, and as we arrived into a warm church hall full of people preparing bedding and food, the positive and upbeat atmosphere was contagious.

I helped put together some comfy raised beds and watched a polished preparation meeting including sharing out responsibilities for serving food and collecting extra bedding and profiles of each guest so that they could be welcomed by name and their specific needs met.

Some of the guest’s needs and histories were extremely challenging, from problems around substance abuse to repetitive blocking of help offered in terms of work or housing from volunteers and linked organisations. Yet not once as the team discussed each guest and their complexities was a single judgemental comment made; never did they question their unconditional commitment to helping these people in whatever practical way they could. It was clear that each homeless guest staying at the venue that night would be recognised as a valuable individual with true worth by these volunteers; highlighting a startling contrast to the damning rhetoric we hear so often from society that blames and dismisses a person who finds themselves trapped in homelessness.

I came away from my trip inspired and energised by these volunteers who give their time, energy and own warm beds at night so selflessly, reflecting God’s uniquely unconditional, ‘never-give-up’ kind of love.