I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t this.
Steve Nolan is showing me around Sanctuary, a night shelter for the homeless. He and his wife Lorna are the full-time Project Managers for the shelter. Project Manager could lead you to believe Steve and Lorna are being paid for the incredible amount of work they do, that’s not the case, they’re volunteers like everyone else I meet here.
Steve explains this is their second winter. Sanctuary started in 2015 and runs three nights a week from the start of December to the end of March. They’d like to do more but there just isn’t the money or the number of volunteers to cope. The majority of volunteers come from local churches, but faith isn’t a requirement. More than one person explains, "You don’t have to be a believer to be a good person". Each night has three shifts, evenings are probably the busiest, getting everyone booked in, fed and those that want one through the single shower.
Sanctuary’s base is a Community Centre which backs onto the Methodist Church in the centre of the town. There’s a hall where the guests sleep; a small partition gives some privacy to female guests. There’s also a kitchen, a dining room, the shower, toilet and a busy courtyard for smoking.
Dinner this evening is chicken curry, rice and naan bread followed by peach crumble and custard. Janet and Peter are busy in the kitchen, the food looks good. Peter explains he works for Ikea, I ask if he enjoys it. "If you accept that all retail means working weekends and evenings then it's a great place to work." He's taken time off so he can help out at Sanctuary in the run up to Christmas.
I'm talking to some other volunteers while Lee is waiting for his shower. He sorts through a large holdall of clothes. Guests can leave dirty washing which another group of volunteers will wash the following day.
A Brazilian girl, who works as a youth Pastor for a local church, and her boyfriend are organising the shower rota. She explains it can take a while to get everyone through the shower. Some guests like to linger under the hot water, which is understandable, but they don't want to be still doing this at midnight. In amongst his washing, Lee finds a mobile phone, he’s no idea where it came from. “Look, Miss, it works!” There’s something about his old-fashioned formality which is utterly disarming. We talk about the benefits of old Nokia phones and the Brazilian girl teases her boyfriend about the failures of Gillingham FC.
Other guests slowly trickle in. A small group of Polish men arrive they’re obviously regulars. Gravesend sits on the route between the channel crossings and London, so the town gets a large number of overseas visitors. This is probably not how they imagined life would be when they left home to come to the UK.
It’s cold for December. Winter in the south-east generally doesn’t get going until after Christmas but today it’s just above freezing and the wind makes it feel much colder. I suddenly become aware there’s a difference between knowing that people sleep rough and knowing people who sleep rough. It’s not one I think I’ll ever forget.
I only had a couple of hours for this first visit and I leave before dinner is served, but already Sanctuary has made an impression on me. I’m not sure what I expected but it wasn’t this.