Ruth Salter, a volunteer in the sit-up service for homeless people in Nottingham, holds a rucksack

Ruth Salter, sit-up service volunteer, © British Red Cross

As snow and cold weather blow in across the UK, everyone’s feeling the bite. But people sleeping rough have to face the cold in a way most of us can’t even imagine.

The British Red Cross helps in Nottingham by running a ‘sit-up service’ in partnership with Nottingham City Council, the community protection team and Framework Housing Association.

Sit-up gives homeless men and women a safe and warm place to go when temperatures are forecast to fall below zero.

I’ve been volunteering for the sit-up service since it started last year.

A shelter from the cold

Based in a room in a fire station, the service supports up to eight rough sleepers who can stay between 9pm and 7am.

When people come for the first time, we ask them to complete a short registration while they enjoy a hot drink.

It’s not compulsory, but if they give us some idea of their personal details, their GP and a brief history, we can then pass the information to Framework. They can then can support them in the future.

I like to volunteer several nights a week because I can get to know people a bit and it can be rewarding to follow their progress.

Hot drinks, clean clothes and waterless cleaning

At the fire station, people can get clean clothes, hot drinks, cold drinks and meals thanks to donations from local charities. We also have new rucksacks with sleeping bags, blankets and personal hygiene packs which, remarkably, don’t need any water. They are fantastic!

People are free to go in and out until 1am when everyone settles down for the night. Those who come more often are quick to get their favourite spots. Under a table seems to be the number one!

But everyone finds somewhere to lay out their bedding and settle down to sleep – usually in a friendly atmosphere. There are only occasional disagreements over snoring or smelly shoes.

If more than eight people come to the service, Framework is just a phone call away. They quickly arrange transport to alternative accommodation for anyone who needs it. In the meantime, we offer a hot drink and a biscuit to people while they wait.

A different kind of wake-up call

The Red Cross’ crisis response call centre ring us every few hours through the night to check on our welfare and that we are still awake.

Staying up is not as easy as it sounds with a room full of steady breathers or snoring! Police community support officers pop in at 10pm to say hello and sometimes bring a rough sleeper with them. Firefighters keep us supplied with hot water and pop down with a packet of biscuits or some treats if they are having a quiet night.

The alarms do go off (very loudly) if the fire crews get a call out, but bizarrely don’t seem to disturb anyone too much.

“Just like Christmas” for a homeless man

We meet lots of characters. Quiet ones, noisy ones, old ones, young ones, and even furry ones! All with their own tales that they sometimes share.

Yes, it can be upsetting at times. Stories of rough sleepers being spat at, kicked and assaulted are common. There are victims of domestic violence with nowhere else safe to go, and family fallouts leave vulnerable young adults out on the street in the clothes they are stood up in.

But there are funny, heart-warming bits too. We’ve had cats and dogs, and a very sweet man in his later years who spent over an hour packing and unpacking his new rucksack.

He kept declaring how wonderful each newly discovered find was … “just like Christmas”. Absolutely beside himself with joy when he was told that everything inside the rucksack was his to keep, he promptly set about reorganising everything once again.

His fellow homeless people thoughtfully made him drinks. The man then sweetly asked if he could take his old rucksack and give it to one of his mates in the morning.

It’s rewarding to volunteer

I’ve heard that permanent accommodation has been found for people I’ve supported and it’s lovely to know they are spending the cold nights in their own homes.

Volunteering for the sit-up service is very rewarding. My full-time job involves me working outside in all weathers and I know just how cold it can get.

But I can pop off and get a hot drink and food, and I know that I can go home at the end of the day and get some relief from the extreme temperatures. Being part of the service gives me the opportunity to give a little bit of that to people who don’t have that choice.

Our first year was such a success that similar services have been set up in other areas. We also won an award for services to the local community.

Over the weeks we are operational, we build up a lovely environment where homeless people know they have the safety and warmth that affords them at least one night’s sleep.