My life has changed. I’m still a regular at Sanctuary — only this time as a helper. All thanks to the volunteers who care about the homeless.’ — John, former Sanctuary ‘guest’

Sanctuary Reception

Gravesham Sanctuary, a charity supported by Churches Together in Gravesham, UK, provides a free overnight shelter from October to April for the local homeless community. Their service includes: a safe place to sleep during the winter months, hot food and refreshments, showers, clothing and laundry, and help in getting paperwork ID.

But that’s not all. They also signpost rough sleepers to agencies and local groups who can assist with long-term accommodation, employment, physical and mental health, repatriation to their home country, and help them make the most of their life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

As a Christian organisation, they believe that one experiences fullness in life when entering a personal relationship with God. However, they do not ‘Bible punch’, and they welcome anyone of any race or belief.

Sanctuary’s Project Manager Stephen Nolan says: ‘It is through our actions and love for mankind that we demonstrate the lifestyle we hope others will adopt.’

Shelter Entrance

Much of our Learning has been in the Doing

Steve, why, how & when did Gravesham Sanctuary start up?

Sanctuary started in December 2015. It wasn’t my idea. At the age of sixty, after thirty years in the police service and a further eight in local government, I was looking to retire. 

At the time I was involved in a church that had an outreach to the community, and part of that was finding the homeless on the streets. In supporting this initiative we found people sleeping in doorways, in tents, behind bins… 

Our then pastor suggested we attend a meeting in Dartford for a winter shelter starting their third year. Initially I said, ‘No way’. I had no intention of getting involved. Besides, I had another meeting to attend that night. 

Well, it seems God had other ideas. My meeting was cancelled at the last minute, so I ended up going to Dartford with my wife, Lorna. We listened to the views of volunteers and all the churches involved, and we thought: How hard can it be? 

If only we had known… 

Gravesham Sanctuary was born five weeks later.

Did you require any specific education for this role? Or did your former job give you the insight and skills needed?

Undoubtedly my former training as a police officer, dealing with all manner of incidents and problems requiring, sometimes, fast thinking and understanding, combined with Christian compassion, helped me to adapt to the skills required to oversee the shelter. 

To be honest, much of our learning has been in the doing over the years we have been involved in this project. We never call ourselves experts, but in the doing we have learnt an incredible amount about the plight of homeless people.

fellowship over a meal
fellowship over a meal

Did you require any specific education for this role? Or did your former job give you the insight and skills needed?

Undoubtedly my former training as a police officer, dealing with all manner of incidents and problems requiring, sometimes, fast thinking and understanding, combined with Christian compassion, helped me to adapt to the skills required to oversee the shelter. 

To be honest, much of our learning has been in the doing over the years we have been involved in this project. We never call ourselves experts, but in the doing we have learnt an incredible amount about the plight of homeless people.

Being Homeless Is Stressful and Unsafe

Trivial Pursuit

Any highlights you’d like to share?

There are quite a few. We took in a schizophrenic man once. His dog was his whole life, which changed our perception of how important personal belongings are. We smuggled the dog in so they could sleep under a blanket together. Not something we’d normally do, but God created not only man but our pets too. 

Our faith plays an important role in how we help and support those in need. We offer prayer, and we’ll reconnect family members if required. We find that, with gentle persuasion, guests usually request contact with their parents, just to inform them they are safe and well. One of my memorable moments was seeing someone from a different faith trying to persuade her eighteen-year-old son, who was in our shelter, to come home. He did not want to, and she was so upset, and problems like these cross faith boundaries; so my wife consoled and hugged this lady as she battled with the love and despair she felt for her son. The good news is: he returned home a week later. 

Working at Sanctuary, we can become ultra-tired: early morning and night shifts can be a killer; plus the forty to fifty hours a week tend to take their toll. What makes this enjoyable is the laughter when a chess game, or a giant jigsaw, is finished; the transformation when someone is clothed and clean and happy, and content to be called by their given name. When a guest weeps at being reconnected with a family member, or at being able to return to their country of origin… It makes the role worthwhile. 

Many of our guests are vulnerable and struggle with their mental health — being homeless is stressful and unsafe. We love it when change occurs and we see the weary person laugh. Being clean and well-fed, and knowing they are cared for by people who have their genuine interest at heart, makes a huge difference.

Can you tell us about a few of the Sanctuary Guests whose lives have been transformed?

There are so many. One woman immediately comes to mind. We’ll call her ‘A’. A spent four years on the street and lost her child as she was considered an unfit mother, so she resorted to drug use. She ended up alone in London with no one to call upon… Today, A is a completely different woman. After spending time at Sanctuary, she started selling The Big Issue magazine at a regular pitch, and saved her money. And now she has a council flat, which she’s furnished, and she responsibly manages her rent payments. She not only has a job, she also provides support for others as a volunteer. Best of all, she’s in touch with her now grown-up son. 

Then there’s an older ex-veteran who used to be our guest. He now resides in a council flat with supportive living access; he cooks and manages his life; and he’s joined SAFFA and a local ex-veteran group from his old regiment.

news article
news article

Can you tell us about a few of the Sanctuary Guests whose lives have been transformed?

There are so many. One woman immediately comes to mind. We’ll call her ‘A’. A spent four years on the street and lost her child as she was considered an unfit mother, so she resorted to drug use. She ended up alone in London with no one to call upon… Today, A is a completely different woman. After spending time at Sanctuary, she started selling The Big Issue magazine at a regular pitch, and saved her money. And now she has a council flat, which she’s furnished, and she responsibly manages her rent payments. She not only has a job, she also provides support for others as a volunteer. Best of all, she’s in touch with her now grown-up son. 

Then there’s an older ex-veteran who used to be our guest. He now resides in a council flat with supportive living access; he cooks and manages his life; and he’s joined SAFFA and a local ex-veteran group from his old regiment.

tattooed hands
airbeds

Do you have any advice for others who aspire to make a difference?

Be Bold. God works when you least expect it. For example, the moment we knew Sanctuary was going ahead, we put out a call for volunteers. Initially it was just to run an overnight shelter with evening meals, three nights a week. In faith we laid out 60 chairs… And what happened? 180 people turned up! 

The best advice I can give is: just learn from our experience. My wife and I had been looking forward to a gentle retirement… but God had an opportunity in mind! We were willing and able, and we learnt a huge amount about homelessness by doing what we set out to do: seeking the lost, feeding the hungry, offering shelter and, above all, supporting those who want change

We are realistic and have Hope at the forefront of our mission. We are there in times of crisis, in the good and bad moments, and we never give up — something other charities and statutory agencies may have to do, due to lack of finances or time. 

We listened to others, travelled around to find information, sought advice from those who had set other shelters up, and joined Homeless Link and Housing Justice (a Christian-led charity for the homeless). 

The Bible says: ‘Share your food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless; give clothes to those who need them.’ (Isaiah 58:7) Jesus reminded us of this in the book of Matthew. The way we see it: if Jesus says to do this, then so should we.

What was your steepest learning curve?

Being able to understand with compassion the stories we heard from our homeless guests. Until we encountered people sleeping rough: living in bushes, under tarpaulins and in encampments, we had no idea of the prejudice and safety issues they struggle with daily. We learnt very quickly, sometimes after having crawled through bushes to reach them, that homelessness is hidden away

One of the testimonies we heard in the early days from a guy who had been homeless was: ‘Most people as they grow up have hopes and aspirations in life: a family, a home, nice clothes, car, holidays… The list goes on. But if you’re homeless and on the streets, you have none of these. The only thought you have is: How do I survive the next two hours on the street… and the next two after that? And so it goes on.’  

Is it any wonder that some (not all) turn to drink and/or drugs? Wrong choice, of course, but you can well understand why. We have heard some heartbreaking stories over the years. There but for the grace of God go I.

eating area
eating area

What was your steepest learning curve?

Being able to understand with compassion the stories we heard from our homeless guests. Until we encountered people sleeping rough: living in bushes, under tarpaulins and in encampments, we had no idea of the prejudice and safety issues they struggle with daily. We learnt very quickly, sometimes after having crawled through bushes to reach them, that homelessness is hidden away

One of the testimonies we heard in the early days from a guy who had been homeless was: ‘Most people as they grow up have hopes and aspirations in life: a family, a home, nice clothes, car, holidays… The list goes on. But if you’re homeless and on the streets, you have none of these. The only thought you have is: How do I survive the next two hours on the street… and the next two after that? And so it goes on.’  

Is it any wonder that some (not all) turn to drink and/or drugs? Wrong choice, of course, but you can well understand why. We have heard some heartbreaking stories over the years. There but for the grace of God go I.

colouring in

What would you like to say to people struggling with compassion for the homeless?

We think our main role as ambassadors for the homeless is myth busting and breaking taboos. Homelessness can happen to anyone. Having to sleep on the street can occur at any time in someone’s life — and can have devastating consequences.

Where does the financial support come from?

Running the shelter is costly, so we rely on public donations throughout the year. We are constantly amazed by, and always grateful for, people’s generosity: a jar of sweets from a family, a Christmas dinner from a major retailer, ten quid from a pensioner, good-quality clothing from a school, sugar and teabags from a local shop… As the advert says: ‘Every little helps’ — and we make use of every bit we get. 

New underwear and toiletries are essentials for our guests who, after a hot shower, need fresh clothing. We see ‘little’ donations as a blessing and the bigger ones as the providence of God. 

We are supported locally by several schools, churches, Rotary Clubs, Women’s Institutes, small businesses and the community. And when the pandemic started, the government stepped up with a donation through Housing Justice, which saw us through the last two years.

storage room
storage room

Where does the financial support come from?

Running the shelter is costly, so we rely on public donations throughout the year. We are constantly amazed by, and always grateful for, people’s generosity: a jar of sweets from a family, a Christmas dinner from a major retailer, ten quid from a pensioner, good-quality clothing from a school, sugar and teabags from a local shop… As the advert says: ‘Every little helps’ — and we make use of every bit we get. 

New underwear and toiletries are essentials for our guests who, after a hot shower, need fresh clothing. We see ‘little’ donations as a blessing and the bigger ones as the providence of God. 

We are supported locally by several schools, churches, Rotary Clubs, Women’s Institutes, small businesses and the community. And when the pandemic started, the government stepped up with a donation through Housing Justice, which saw us through the last two years.

Dominoes

How can the public help?

Besides funding, which is always a constant challenge for us, we would be grateful for more volunteers. Many of our volunteers are members of the public — you and me. 

We can all help in so many ways: cooking a meal; playing board games; just listening to our guests, and treating them with respect, can improve the lives of those sleeping rough. We can be their support and their encourager.

Steve, thank you so much for giving this interview. You and Lorna are pillars of the community. May God continue to bless your endeavours!

 

Gravesham Sanctuary is a registered charity (no. 1181817 in England & Wales). If you’re local or nearby, why not look them up and see how you can help? Having volunteered there with my husband, I can categorically state that you feel completely uplifted after a shift at Sanctuary! Making a difference in people’s lives is what it’s all about, right?

Connect with Gravesham Sanctuary on Facebook, or Instagram, or on their website.

Tweetable TAKEAWAYS:

MAKING A DIFFERENCE IS EASIER THAN YOU THINK.

BE BOLD. TAKE ACTION NOW.

WHAT IS LOVE? FEEDING THE HUNGRY. SHELTERING THE HOMELESS. CLOTHING THE NEEDY.

HOMELESSNESS IS HIDDEN AWAY. LET’S DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS!

HOMELESSNESS CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE. THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD GO I.

 

FYI…

I don’t receive any reward/commission for promoting any of the people, businesses or charities on my blog. I just want to inspire & motivate as many people as possible to fulfil their purpose & potential.

 

If any other key points stood out for you, or you just want to let me know what you thought about this interview, feel free to comment below.

NEXT WEEK on The Hopeaholic blog: 

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6 Comments

  1. Dr Doy

    A great article of hope …. well done to all involved for their commitment and to you Vanessa for bringing it to our attention!

    Reply
    • Vanessa Stevenson

      Thank you so much, Dr Doy! Your encouraging words warm my heart. xx

      Reply
    • Mark Pile

      Another amazing article, thank you Vanessa. I have had the privilege of serving at the Sanctuary as a volunteer and it changed my life

      Reply
      • Vanessa Stevenson

        Thank you, Mark. It truly is a life-changing, paradigm-shifting experience, isn’t it. x

        Reply
  2. DanL

    How blessed to serve in such a transformational establishment. Exhausting but so rewarding. All the volunteers are truly saints…

    Reply

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