‘Twas the night before Christmas... and homeless shelter’s will be like any other

It’s the night before Christmas, and the team at the Dacorum emergency night shelter run by homelessness charity DENS are doing all they can to make sure that tomorrow’s celebrations will be just like those being enjoyed in happy households up and down the country.

For those without a permanent roof over their heads, each cold and bitter night on the street is tough.

DENS Night Shelter creates a festive atmosphere for its homeless guests.

DENS Night Shelter creates a festive atmosphere for its homeless guests.

But during Christmas, the charity’s team can help them forget their worries and enjoy a hearty meal and fun times together.

Night shelter manager Paul Latimer said: “You’ll see some of the guys playing on Wii together, others setting the table.

“We have the full Christmas dinner and everyone gets on – we are a family here and Christmas Day isn’t any different.”

The 10-bed night shelter in Hemel Hempstead, celebrating its 10th anniversary, is largely staffed by people who have come through the service – and in most cases, rough times – themselves.

Manager Paul is one such success story, who knows first-hand the positive effect DENS has on the needy and vulnerable.

But he has seen a shift in the issue of homelessness, and believes the stigma attached to it is wrong.

He said: “Historically, we have had people with drug, alcohol or mental health needs.

“Now, we are seeing restaurateurs, teachers, people with degrees.

“It’s not just your stereotypical drug and alcohol backgrounds any more, it’s relationship breakdowns or people who lose their jobs.”

One current night shelter user , 31-year-old Matt Blackledge, is a case in point.

A stress-related illness caused him to lose his job in admin and accounting, and when temping opportunities dried up, he was evicted from his privately-rented room in Hemel Hempstead.

He has no recorded drug or alcohol problems – but he is struggling and in need of the support that DENS can provide.

He told me: “Before I got here, I was very apprehensive of what I might find and of the people who live here, but it has surprised me.

“The people have been very welcoming and the staff have been fantastic.

“I suppose I’m not your stereotypical homeless person – I didn’t think I would be in this situation, but it can happen to anyone.”

Further misconceptions about homelessness are also proved wrong by the charity, which says almost a quarter of its users are female.

Between October 2012 and September this year, there was also an increase of 24 per cent in the number of people aged 18 to 24 requiring emergency accommodation.

While Matt hopes to visit family in Preston for the holidays, the stark reality for many people in the borough is a Christmas on the streets.

Paul says the shelter will take in more people than usual tomorrow and give them the full festive experience, but, like the Foodbank and the rest of the charity’s services, his vital work goes on all year round.

Last year, the night shelter was forced to turn away an average of one person per night because of demand in the borough, where up to 100 people are homeless at any given time.

However, the charity’s success rate in getting people to move on positively with their lives – for example, into a permanent home, work or education – is more than 87 per cent.

Paul said: “If it wasn’t for our volunteers and the people who donate, we wouldn’t be able to do the job we do, so thank you.

“But there will always be more people through the door.

“I would like not to have a job in homelessness, because then we would have solved it. But, sadly, it is going to get worse.”