Winter Night Shelter MK is a charity almost entirely run by volunteers that provides a range of services and support to homeless people in Milton Keynes. It runs through the coldest months of the year, from December to March, and since it started in 2011 has hosted 320 guests, provided 3,587 bed nights, served 7,174 meals and helped 165 people move into longer term accommodation.
WNSMK’s short-term aim is to provide safe places where homeless can spend the night during the Winter, However, its longer term objective is to help people out of homelessness an ambition that’s becoming ever harder to achieve.
We recently visited WNSMK’s reception centre at the Old Bus Station at Elder Gate to talk to one of the charity’s founders Richard Wightman to find out more about what goes on there.
When we arrived just before 5 o’clock on a cold Monday evening guests were already arriving promptly for when registrations opens at quarter past 5. All guests have already been assessed by Daniel, one of WNSMK’s few paid staff, who ensures that there are no signs of substance abuse too great to be managed, which could endanger them, volunteers or other guests. The charity currently looks after 15 guests each night and has plans to double capacity next year.
Richard has noticed several changes in homelessness over the past six years. He says: “There are more homeless women in MK which results in some different issues from being a man on the streets. With buoyant employment resulting in more people wanting to come to MK, it is becoming increasingly tough to place people in more permanent accommodation as housing becomes more and more snarled up around the city. And, with changes to the welfare system, fewer people have access to benefits that previously made it easier for them to access private rented accommodation. A fact which people always find surprising is that around a third of our guests are in employment, but still can’t get accommodation because there simply isn’t enough that they can afford.”
Despite all of these challenges the WNSMK army of some 450 volunteers makes sterling efforts to welcome guests into the reception centre which has been made for this Winter by the building’s owner Milton Keynes Development Partnership. Richard says: “We are very grateful that MKDP is not charging rent for this year. The Old Bus Station is an ideal location and we are working with MKDP to agree a longer-term solution that meets our needs as well as theirs.”
Once guests have signed in they are greeted with a hot drink and can choose to sit and talk to other guests or volunteers, watch TV or just sit by themselves knowing that they are warm and safe. At 7.15pm a minibus arrives to collect the guests and takes them all to one of seven locations around Milton Keynes. Each venue hosts one night per week and will have around 24 people on hand split into team., These teams are tasked with either cooking dinner, chatting with guests or providing entertainment from games and quizzes to films or live music, staying overnight, preparing breakfast or clearing up and returning the facility back to its usual use as a church or community hall.
At around 8.15am guests are collected and taken back to the Old Bus Station where they collect their belongings and begin their day, very often back on the streets.
Welfare office Daniel says: “So far we have placed ten people since we opened in December, this is far fewer than in previous years and unfortunately most of them have had to move away because of the lack of accommodation in Milton Keynes.”
It is clear that WNSMK provides a valuable service with an enthusiastic team of volunteers and guests who are very appreciative of what they do to help them survive the Winter and, where possible, move onto more permanent living arrangements.