Quakers transform meeting house into emergency shelter for rough sleepers

When heavy snow hit Weston-super-Mare, Friends were ready to take immediate action for people experiencing homelessness.

Jessica Rees southwestliving
Quakers responded quickly to the plummeting temperatures. Photo: Jessica Rees/@southwestliving

Sometimes we wonder what the role of trustees is. But this story from Weston-super-Mare gives us an idea. The Area Meeting had spent time thinking about possibilities of the meeting house and Quaker community at Weston. Nothing seemed to come from it – yet when a Friend said “I cannot see people die on the streets" during the winter freeze, Weston Meeting's hearts and minds were ready to respond to that leading.

An inspiring talk on sustainability generated energy for action initially, but it was four months before we had the follow up meeting. We came away with good ideas around working together, greater public visibility, and reaching out into the community, but we lacked a sense of 'vision'.

Work, laughter and goodwill

The freezing winter weather took hold two days later. Barry, our lettings officer, saw the possibilities of opening the meeting house as a temporary night shelter. Bedding, food and volunteers were rounded up and by evening the Meeting House opened as a night shelter.

A week on and the Meeting House had been open for six days been open all day for our guests and friends, turning into a temporary shelter at night. When Monday came, we were well pleased when thirteen of our guests succeeded in applying to the council for ongoing overnight accommodation costs.

We had worked, laughed and helped each other as we contributed our different selves. There were endless opportunities to mix with our guests and know them better. There has been so much goodwill, acts of kindness from strangers and wise support. Friends were also deeply pleased when we briefly hit the national news! This visibility grants us openings to explore ways forward.

Making it possible

It wasn't always this way. Eight years ago, when the weather was equally appalling, we tried to open the Meeting House for an overnight shelter. Nothing was in place for such a venture, and we felt helpless and found wanting. What had changed?

It was a case of having the right people in the right place, with the right experience, at the right time. Barry and Maria had been cheerfully working for more than a year with Winter Warmth, providing Sunday evening meals in the Meeting House. They knew many of our future guests well, creating a valuable link between our communities.

Also, trustees for the last six years had cared for the building so well that the toilets never blocked, the rooms were well-heated, and the oven cooked for England. Our trustee's clerk gave his warm support, referencing the Good Samaritan. Even our insurance was in place for such an eventuality, having been reviewed two weeks earlier.

A community in action

With the trustees support in ensuring things were ready, there was a quiet preparedness, that meant when the leading came, there was a willingness to follow. As they said, 'not us but through us.'

Weston Churches Together, a group which included other local churches, has also been invaluable; local businesses, shops, hotels have contributed and passing strangers have volunteered. The help, kindness and support of the people of Weston made this emergency response possible.

Barry Edwards shakes hands with Gary Hoare, President of Churches Together. Photo: Churches Together.

I was struck by the way Barry quietly shared the Quaker ethos with our guests. Walking into the shelter the first time, when all around me was heaving, I felt the quiet potency of Quakerism. We held a meeting for worship with the quiet hum of 30 people chatting in our hall. For those of us in worship – which included some of our guests and visiting church members – the background hum lent the stillness a deep quality.

At a recent trustees meeting we were reminded to 'live adventurously'. We feel a deep sense of thankfulness for seeing so many different strands come together and grow. From this, we are moving out into the world.