THE kitchen is rich with the smell of roast chicken as people scurry around laying the table and adding finishing touches to the veg.

It could easily be a scene of domestic Sunday bliss – a family about to sit down to a hearty meal and a good old natter.

But this is actually a night shelter for rough sleepers, set up at Northgate Church in Chester by volunteers and staff from forfutures, the council’s contractor for homeless and housing services.

It is one of five ‘pop-up’ locations in the city that offer beds, food and warmth whenever the temperature drops below zero and SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol) is activated.

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Northgate Church is home to one of the city's night shelters.

forfutures has been running the shelters since November last year, with the help of some of the charities, faith groups and volunteer organisations that make up the Outside In group.

It is around 7pm on a cold night (Sunday, February 3) when the first homeless people begin to arrive at the church, having registered for one of the 12 beds at a forfutures base in the city centre.

I have been invited along by Labour councillor Richard Beacham to see the service in action, and so far I’m mightily impressed.

Earlier on I helped set up the camp beds and prepare accompanying boxes which each contain a sleeping bag, pillow and toiletries.

I ask the church volunteers if they need any help with the food but group leader Jo tells me it’s all under control as they begin to plate up.

Initially there are six rough-sleepers around the table – five men and one woman, all relatively young. It’s clear several are slightly intoxicated, but they are all extremely polite and appear delighted with the meal that is placed in front of them.

One man, who is with his partner, asks me if there is any pepper and then thanks me profusely when I hand him the grinder.

Once finished, he gives Cllr Beacham and me a snapshot of his backstory over a drink of orange juice.

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He lost a succession of jobs in various restaurants and eateries in the city before turning to increasingly harder drugs. Once hooked on heroin there was no turning back and he found himself on the streets.

Later, Janet Lawton, the Strategic Homeless Lead at forfutures, tells me this is a familiar story. For those with no family safety net, the often-repeated statement that we’re all just a missed paycheque away from homelessness appears to be true.

The almost inevitable drink and drug addictions then keep people at rock bottom, not helped by inflexible private landlords and the terribly-implemented Universal Credit benefits system that has left many considerably worse off.

No one can fail to have noticed the soaring number of rough-sleepers on Chester’s streets in the past year or so.

Officially, there are said to be just 17 street-homeless people in the city. That’s according to a snapshot of those found sleeping out early on the morning of October 10 last year.

But Janet tells me that between November 1, 2018, and February 2 this year forfutures has encountered 125 individuals who have sought refuge on one or more nights during SWEP.

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“Some of these are now in direct access or supported accommodation, and others are no longer known to be in the city,” she says.

“Outside In, which includes volunteer organisations as well as forfutures, the council and Cheshire Police, has agreed a list of 44 names who are known to be sleeping rough in the city.”

It has been said that the city’s positive attitude towards helping the homeless could, somewhat ironically, explain the rising numbers of rough-sleepers.

Janet accepts that Chester is seen as an attractive destination for homeless people but, of course, this should not dissuade the community and agencies from doing all they can to help vulnerable people.

Helen Anthony, founder of support organisation Soul Kitchen and member of Outside In, joins us at one stage and beams as she surveys a scene of such obvious care and compassion.

The key to tackling the homelessness crisis, she says, is proper engagement with homeless people, and treating them with dignity and humanity.

forfurtues, to their credit, appear to have completely embraced this idea. The ‘pop-up’ night shelters are designed to allow people to relax and chat to both the volunteers and trained staff.

“Our aim is not just to provide shelter, but to work one-to-one with anyone rough sleeping to identify the right emotional and practical support to empower them to move away from life on the streets and into a safe and secure home,” says Janet.

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Furthermore, a 24/7 ‘local assessment’ hub is soon to be opened in Hamilton House in the city centre providing a one-stop-shop for experts to help people facing homelessness.

“A local assessment hub in central Chester will help us engage with those who find themselves at imminent risk of or already rough sleeping by being staffed by housing and support specialists 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Janet explains.

“It will provide a venue where we can implement a triage process and complete a full assessment including a personal housing plan and referrals to partner agencies. It will also provide space for partner agencies to operate and work with clients.”

She continues: “The assessment hub will not provide accommodation but will provide a private space to sleep for a short stay in a safe and dignified environment, allowing forfutures and Housing Options the time to fully complete the assessment process and find suitable move on accommodation.

“The hub would also enable us to harness and coordinate the work of our active and willing voluntary and faith sectors to assist us with the provision of meals rather than providing food to those on the streets and a structured programme of daytime activities.”

Back at the Northgate Church dinner table, the main course has been polished off and dessert is being served – cheesecake.

It’s fair to say this proves a huge hit, with one hungry customer polishing off an impressive three portions.

Lisa Walker, a service co-ordinator with forfutures, jokingly chastises the cake-lover for not having finished his vegetables earlier – a comment that is met with a broad grin.

“I feel like their mum sometimes!” she tells me.

I ask Janet if the interaction on this particular night is representative of SWEP nights in general, and she says that largely it is.

There have been incidents in the past with people high on drink or drugs but staff are trained to deal with this and have always tackled the situation professionally.

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Besides the 12 beds available at the night shelter on SWEP nights, forfutures also has six emergency beds available at other facilities across the borough.

If all are taken up then the council puts people up in B&Bs, although this is only used as a last resort or when an individual is not suitable for shared accommodation.

SWEP was triggered 24 times between November 2018, when the pop-up night shelter model was introduced, and January 30 this year.

The latest data from forfutures reveals that, during these times, 218 spaces were provided in the pop-up provision, accessed by 68 different people.

In addition, 90 emergency spaces were found in direct access hostels and 61 rooms were booked in B&Bs.

In total, 369 spaces have been provided to ensure that nobody has to sleep out in sub-zero temperatures.

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“Night shelters have proved popular with people accessing them,” Janet says. “The hospitality provided clearly has a positive effect on their wellbeing and general behaviours.

“Where B&Bs have been used on any given night it has either been because the beds in shelter and our services have been full, or because of individual factors that meant shared spaces are not suitable for the person. This is generally due to physical or mental health, or substance use.”

Clearly just as impressed as I am with the Northgate Church set-up, Cllr Beacham says the long-term vision could be to have the night shelters running every night throughout the winter, regardless of SWEP.

“There is an appetite amongst some of the volunteers to extend this service throughout the winter, regardless of the temperature, and there are discussions taking place in the Outside In working groups to try and turn this into a reality,” he tells me.

“To pull this off, we need more venues and a lot more volunteers and if anyone wants to help, they can contact me or forfutures. What I like about what we are doing here is that this is a community response to a crisis in our society. It’s about pulling together as residents and organisations to deliver something better than any of us could achieve by ourselves.”

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On the same subject, Janet adds: “The pop-up model was only developed this winter and will be fully reviewed in April.

“Winter shelters do have the benefit of being open regardless and less time is spent transporting equipment, setting up and putting away, and weather watching.

“As part of the review we will look at the feasibility of such a project but at the moment there is no additional funding to staff a shelter seven nights a week.”

I get up to leave around 9pm after an eye-opening three hours volunteering at the church shelter. Some of the rough sleepers have already headed off to bed, others stay up chatting, laughing at YouTube videos and playing cards.

All helped clear up after dinner, and all will hang around the next morning for breakfast before stepping back out onto the streets.

That night a total of nine people stayed at the shelter, six stayed at other forfutures facilities and a further six were put up in B&Bs.

The homeless crisis shows no signs of abating in Chester, as it does nationwide. But our city, its council, charities, agencies and residents clearly have an unwavering desire to help rough-sleepers. And for that they should be commended.

* For more information on volunteering with homeless people, email

If you see a rough sleeper in the city, call the forfutures outreach team on 0300 123 2442 and they will try to engage with the individual. The team operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.