Winter Shelter program means Clayton has a home after years on the streets

For Clayton Hook, a man from Toowoomba, sleeping rough was easier than asking for help.

“I was a little too proud to ask someone if I could just be on their couch, stay in their cabin,” he said.

Seven years is a long time to be on the streets of a place like Toowoomba, where the winters are harsh and unforgiving.

“Most of the time I stayed up all night and walked around at night,” he said.

Mr. Hook’s story is a familiar one: a 23-year relationship breakdown led to a life spiral.

“I wasn’t working, I just couldn’t bring myself to go to work; [I] just couldn’t concentrate,” he said.

“I was lost. When I was on the streets, I took drugs.”

A homeless shelter changed Clayton’s life

Then Toowoomba’s Winter Shelter program “saved” him.

From June to August, the churches of the city open their doors to the homeless to escape the winter cold.

Now in its second year, Winter Shelter – which is supported by Lifeline and seven local faith communities – is helping up to 10 people a night for 92 nights.

Volunteers set up beds every night during the winter for the homeless in Toowoomba(Provided: Shaaron Currie)

“Just having a shower, a clean bed every night, smelling great, smelling of washing powder and being able to just sit at a table and have a meal with someone else is really something,” Mr. Hook said.

“At first I boycotted it a bit because for a few years I felt like I was depressed and I didn’t know where to turn.

“Then all of a sudden there were people trying to help and I was like, ‘what’s going on here, what’s the catch?’

“I just wasn’t used to strangers being willing to help me…I had been on the streets for six or seven years. It was something I wasn’t used to.”

people seated at a table in a church hall
Churches in Toowoomba open their doors to the homeless during the winter months, providing beds and meals.(Provided: Shaaron Currie)

With help from the local shelter and housing center, Mr. Hook is clean, has a small unit of his own and has a job as a gardener at a local Christian school.

He is also making up for lost time with his four daughters.

“At the time, I was just ashamed of myself,” he recalls.

“I’ve kept in touch with them on the phone but haven’t had much personal contact with them, but I see them fairly regularly now.”

Soft vegetables a favorite

woman preparing food on stove
Meals at Winter Shelter Toowoomba are prepared by a band of enthusiastic volunteers.(Provided: Shaaron Currie)

Shaaron Currie, site coordinator for Winter Shelter Toowoomba, recalled the night Mr Hook first arrived on the doorstep of St Stephen’s Uniting Church last year.

Mrs. Currie prepares meals for the homeless, but the menu is different from what she serves her family back home.

A plate of ice cream and cheesecake
Due to poor dental health, customers at Winter Shelter Toowoomba often prefer softer foods.(Provided: Shaaron Currie)

“We have a guest who loves custard. Last year we found that a lot of guests enjoyed the mushy vegetables because a lot of homeless people don’t have teeth,” she said.

Ms Currie said volunteering had a profound effect on her own attitudes.

“Before Winter Shelter, I would never stop on the street to talk to a homeless person, whereas now if I see homeless people downtown, I stop and talk to them,” a- she declared.

“Just to see the delight of our guests sitting at a simple table. They appreciate the homemade baking, they appreciate everything we do for them.

One service is worth another

Clayton Hook returns to the streets every night, but now he drives the bus that picks up homeless people to take them to shelters.

man in dark clothes standing in front of mini bus door
Clayton Hook drives the bus that picks up homeless people to take them to shelters.(Provided: Shaaron Currie)

As an ambassador for Winter Shelter 2022, he used his own story to connect with others.

“If I can kind of convey that, that makes me feel good too,” he said.

“Not just the people struggling, the volunteers too. They brought me out of my shell, you know, to be honest.

“It was just like a family.”

Ryan H. Bowman