CHURCHES have opened their doors to the homeless this winter.

Seven churches in Southend have got together to open every night of the week to make sure no one is left out in the cold.

Volunteers open up at 7.30pm, providing a hot meal, companionship, somewhere to sleep and breakfast John Simmons co-ordinator for the winter night shelter project, which has been organised by the Love Southend group of churches, said Southend Council had they decided to help following a request by Southend Council.

The council has a statutory obligation to provide shelter for rough sleepers when the temperature drops below freezing for three consecutive nights.

Mr Simmons said: “Southend Council approached us last year to help with their emergency shelter protocol but we said that would be very awkward to do. We wouldn’t be able to open at a moment’s notice like that so we said we would open every night.

“It was at quite short notice though so we only managed to get three churches to take part.

“This year we have seven churches involved in providing overnight accommodation during the coldest months.”

Mr Simmons who organises a night shelter at Westcliff Free Church in London Road, said the project was also being run in conjunction with the Homeless Action Resource Project (Harp).

He said: “People are referred to us by the Harp. They only send us people who are assessed to be low risk. People who won’t threaten us with violence or who aren’t drugged or drunk.”

Gary Turner, service manager at Harp in Valkyrie Road, Westcliff said: “This provides another option for us when our night shelter is full or when the weather is particularly cold. People who come to our day centre are referred to whichever church is operating on that day.

“We manage the numbers and the risk in conjunction with the night shelters so hopefully no one will be sleeping rough or dying of cold.”

Phill Warren, Southend Council’s housing needs manager, said funding had been provided to co-ordinate the scheme and to provide sleeping bags and roll mats.

He said: “ The council has strong working partnerships with the Love Southend faith group and Harp.

“These partnerships have resulted in winter night shelters being provided in churches across the borough from the start of November to the end of February.

“This arrangement ensures that nobody has to sleep rough in Southend during the coldest months of the year.”

Mr Warren added: “It goes above and beyond normal best practice, where winter night shelter provision doesn’t normally start until the beginning of December.

“However, our provision operates every night during this four-month period regardless of how cold it is, ensuring people can access food, shelter and companionship.”

*HOMELESS people are grateful for the work of the charities.

Marie, 30, who came to Southend from Basildon to escape her violent partner said, “When you are homeless you have to make a choice each day, do you concentrate on finding somewhere to live, or something to eat. This service takes that pressure away so I know every night there will be somewhere I can eat and sleep so I can concentrate on finding somewhere to live during the day.”

In the kitchen, head chef Hazel Read cooked 30 meals for the visitors and the volunteers, “I opted for a meat pie, gravy, peas and roast potatoes followed by fruit crumble and custard. I tried it out on my granddaughter the night before and she said it was just like school dinners!”

Tony Poulter, 25, who has been homeless for many years, appreciated the meal, “It’s great to come somewhere where people really care. Harp connected all of us with this scheme. I have been clean of drugs since August 2011 and that in itself is stressful, but with the right help and advice I know I can change my life now. I want to have kids, and join a gym, and work in the fitness industry.”