Inside the salvation of Glasgow’s homeless shelter at winter

Record numbers of people are living on the streets at the coldest time of year.

For a decade, Glasgow’s Winter Night Shelter has served as a lifeline for those living on the streets at the coldest time of the year. Offering somewhere safe and warm to sleep, last year saw record numbers of people access the service. As Glasgow City Council admits there’s a housing emergency, I spent a night at the shelter and met those who rely on the service.

The temperature had already dipped below zero when I arrived at the shelter in the east end of Glasgow. It was 9pm and I was nervous for the night ahead. As almost half of all homeless applications in Scotland are made by single men I had a vague idea of what the shelter might be like. However, I was completely unaware the stories I would hear would change my perception of homelessness, completely.

I was greeted warmly by a dozen volunteers. They’d already started laying mattresses on the floor and preparing food for their guests. They were enthusiastic and the environment was much friendlier and more positive than I’d imagined. Before the doors had even opened, I already had a sense of how passionate they are about their roles.

“We don’t see these people as problems, we see them as opportunities to share something good with them,” one of the volunteers told me. “Other people in society may see this as a problem but for us it’s an opportunity to show love and kindness and treat them the way they should be treated.”

Glasgow’s Winter Night Shelter accommodates up to 30 people every night, from December until March. Glasgow City Mission have been running it for a decade. Last year, they saw 700 people access the service – up almost 300 since 2014.

Guests are provided with a mattress and a warm duvet for the night, as well hot drinks and a slice of toast.

Stuart Crawford, a volunteer from Glasgow, said: “It can be a mixed bag every night, nothing is ever the same. Some of our guests are just desperate to get in and have a lie down. Others want to chat. Some come in that have been taking substances so they are a bit out of it and we need to keep an eye on them.  Others are very lonely and just want a bit of company.

“If they’ve been on the streets all day, coming here is just an absolute refuge for them.”

At 10pm, the doors opened and the first guests arrived. The first few to trickle through were single men – they’d recently been released from prison and had nowhere else to go. One man was visibly injured and the volunteers quickly arranged a taxi to take him to the hospital.

I watched as the volunteers searched guests and removed anything dangerous before they allowed them inside. It’s important they register on arrival to allow staff from the Glasgow City Mission to refer them on to their partners – to help them access suitable accommodation or any other help they require.

While demand for the night shelter seems to be increasing, the number of nights homeless people are spending there is dropping. According to Glasgow City Mission, they are being moved onto permanent accommodation more quickly.

‘I had nowhere else to go, I went down to the city mission and they tried to offer me a sleeping bag’

Dean Hainey

By 11pm, most of the guests had arrived. A group of volunteers were on the phone to NHS 24 as a man lay in bed, intoxicated and unresponsive. I was intrigued by how calm and collected they were dealing with a situation that would undoubtedly panic others. One of the volunteers explained how they’ve been trained in the use of Naloxone – an emergency medication that can reverse the effects of a drugs overdose.

Throughout the night I heard a series of heartbreaking stories  – from women who had ended up in the shelter because they were fleeing violent partners to men who had travelled to Glasgow to escape violence. But one thing the majority of them had in common was that their families don’t know they’re homeless.

I met Dean Hainey as he picked out a bed for the night. He’s a 23-year-old dad and it was his first night at the shelter. Given his age, his story really struck a chord with me.

“I’m probably the youngest guy in here but that’s just the way it is,” he said. “I had nowhere else to go, I went down to the city mission and they tried to offer me a sleeping bag.”

Dean became homeless after his dad died and his mum was taken into care after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He turned to drugs and alcohol.

He said: “It’s hard, it’s really hard. When your homeless you can cry, you can feel suicidal. You feel as if you have no-one. I’m scared about the future because I don’t know what’s around the corner. I want help.”

At midnight, the shelter fell dark and most put their heads down for a much-needed sleep before heading back out on the streets the following day.

Elyse MacKinnon, manager of the Glasgow Night Shelter, said: “I like to think of us as a city that’s trying to deal with homelessness rather than hiding away from it. That’s why our partnerships are key – linking up with agencies across the city. Not one agency will be able to solve this on its own. Hopefully one day we will be able to solve it – that’s the goal.”

Between 2018-2019, Glasgow City Council received 5679 homeless applications. There were 36,000 homeless applications across Scotland.

Councillor Mhairi Hunter, Glasgow City Council convener for health and social care integration, said: “We do believe that we can get to the point where we can effectively end homelessness in this city. We are not going to do it overnight.

“We’ve set out a five-year plan to achieve our targets. We are working our way towards that and we are getting really good support. Not only from our partners from across the city, but from the people of Glasgow as well.”