Sanctuary: talking with Steve Nolan by Nigel Rumsey

Steve Nolan, Sanctuary Project Manager

Steve Nolan, Sanctuary Project Manager

“Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, come to the community and share the gospel”. I’m sitting in the small very busy office at Sanctuary, the night shelter for the homeless in Gravesend, talking to Steve Nolan. Steve and his wife Lorna are the unpaid Project Managers for Sanctuary. Steve is explaining the mission of their church the City Praise Centre. An ex-policeman Steve is a big guy, although quietly spoken I can imagine him being quite imposing in a police uniform. Today he looks tired, really tired. This is no easy retirement.

Steve spent 30 years serving with the Police and then working for a local authority, much of that time justifying for one reason or another why he couldn’t help the people Sanctuary now exists to care for. Lorna worked in education and in 2015 after a year Steve describes as their ‘year of hell’ they both found themselves out of work.

Guests at Sanctuary night hostel, waiting for opening time

At that time the lead pastor of their church Tom Griffiths and his wife were going out onto the streets in the evening to help people sleeping rough. Steve said at times he’d go with them “we found people sleeping in doorways, sleeping behind bins, people sleeping in tents. We’d chat to them, share a cup of coffee.” In October that year, Tom asked them if they’d like to go to a meeting in a local town where the organisers of the night shelter there were talking about their experiences. Steve jokes, he answered, “not really”. “It was on a Friday evening and we had a regular meeting with friends which we didn’t want to miss.” At 6 o’clock that evening the friends called to say they couldn’t make it. “We took that as a sign that God wanted us to go to that meeting in Dartford.”

Steve and Lorna came back determined they had to do something similar in Gravesend. They met with their church, ”within five weeks of that first meeting Sanctuary was birthed.” 

Getting beds ready for the night, Sanctuary night hostel

“We called a meeting to ask for volunteers, we put out chairs for 60 people, we thought 60 would turn up and we got 180. Everybody was up for it.” It seemed incredible timing, the community centre in which we’re sitting, part of the Methodist Church, was being refurbished. Steve and Lorna were out of work and they had more volunteers than they expected. “We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. We had no idea how to run a night shelter, we just made it up as we went along.”

Hostel volunteers and guests chatting over dinner

In a way it’s a contradiction to refer to a homeless shelter as a success - the best success would mean not needing the shelter in the first place. However, by any measure, this is a success. Last year, Sanctuary had 104 individual guests, they prevented hundreds of nights spent on the streets.

“We had no idea how to run a night shelter, we just made it up as we went along.”

In the first six weeks of this winter they’ve had 95 guests, they have washed 334 bundles of laundry, 302 showers taken, 822 meals served and 481 items of clothing have been given out. Those 95 guests would have spent 202 nights in cars, tents or on the streets. Most importantly, with the help of other agencies including Porchlight and the Home Office, 23 people are no longer guests, they have been rehomed.

Volunteers pray at the start of each evening

Volunteers pray at the start of each evening

All the time we’re talking volunteers are coming in the office asking questions. One of the volunteers asks Steve if he wants dinner, Lorna thinks he ought to eat. 


During 2016 a drop-in shelter was launched. Steve explains, “It seemed wrong to run from January to March and then say ‘bye, you’re on your own’. So we extended to a drop-in centre that would only provide meals.” Now the Methodist church opens the centre during the day so that the guests can access the showers.

Dinner for one of the guests

I ask about the future. I can’t help thinking that without Steve and Lorna Sanctuary could easily come to an end. It takes a special person to dedicate so much of their life like this. For people with such a social conscience that must be a weight to bear.

It’s not until after I realise he doesn’t really answer the question. He does say he’d like to see the shelter open more than three nights a week. There are currently 130/140 volunteers, he estimates to open seven nights a week they’d need more than double that number. “We see Sanctuary as an advocate for the homeless. We are on the frontline and help where we can. Lorna and I are supposed to be retired, we don’t get paid to do what we do. We get by on my pension and Lorna’s small pension.”

Sanctuary guest resting before dinner

Steve’s dinner arrives. Meatballs with a tomato sauce, pasta and salad followed by a dessert. It looks great.

“We see God as making us available, our meeting was cancelled on the Friday night so we could go to Dartford, we had 180 volunteers when we expected 60, at the same time this building was available. I don’t believe in coincidence, I like to think of it as God-incidence. I think that God prepares you for times such as this. If this is all God intended me to do in my life that’s fantastic.”

A guest eating corned beef

Each shift at Sanctuary is run by a coordinator and several volunteers that in theory is so Steve and Lorna don’t need to be there all the time. However, every time I’ve been there so are they.

We are interrupted by the Sanctuary phone with it’s Superman ringtone. Steve laughs, “When I first started this I thought I was Superman. I soon realised I wasn’t. I can’t do this on my own. We come here because we like the interaction with the guests. If we were just project Managers and we never came here that wouldn’t work for us. We do it because we love it.”

There are more images from Sanctuary here.

Sanctuary is completely funded by donation - if you’d like to help.

Sanctuary by Nigel Rumsey

Lorna Nolan, Sanctuary Project Manager

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.

Sanctuary beds ready for guests.

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.

A partition gives women guests some privacy.

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.

Food in the kitchen ready for dinner.

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. 

Lee finds a mobile phone in his bag.

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.

The welcome desk in several languages.

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.

Trevor in the kitchen preparing dinner.

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.

More images here.