I went down to the night shelter on Sunday where my Mother works, it is part of the church and the 20-30 homeless people sleep there in the church and are then given a full cooked breakfast which my Mother makes and items such as toothbrushes, soap, condoms etc. I went down first thing in the morning and stayed for a few hours these were my thoughts and observations.

It is a rough area of London, the back-streets whatever stereotypes you wish to think of this is the sort of place where vice thrives, life is cheap and quite often short, a mother and 6 year old daughter were stabbed and killed here a week ago. The church is large and grandiose and in its heyday I suspect you’d have had a good couple of hundred or more crammed in. Nowadays the congregation is expanding in contrast to other churches and occasionally it reaches over 50, usually it’ll be around 25-30 and the average age is comparatively young again in contrast to most other.

The Father is a young, enthused, genuine, impassioned firebrand, he is unorthodox, inclusive and prepared to stand up for the Christianity he believes in. I respect him for this, I think if every Father were like him many people would have a great deal more faith in Christianity if not perhaps in God. I did not have a Damascene conversion but I did leave thinking this was a man who cared deeply for his community and worked tirelessly on a woefully inadequate salary with little or no facilities. I am aware that some Americans with familiarity of some impoverished areas will know the odd ‘ghetto preacher’ it is derided now as something of a stereotype the caring priest who attempts to salvage his ‘lost souls’. This priest is doing what he can in a community where precious few other people seem to give a toss.

I don’t see this so much as a religious thing, the Christianity side of it is simply the facilitator that has brought the people together to try to help those who are in trouble. The reason I have written this is that I know I too can be dogmatic about religion getting involved in politics because far too often the involvement of religion can be a bad thing, on the ground however there are examples such as these and it is important that I document this as a balance for me as much as anyone. The fact that my Mother is heavily involved is not making me any more subjective then I would otherwise be based on my politics.

These are some of the people I met, I have changed the names.

Ursula, been here so long she forgets her German words sometimes. From the outside looks like the archetypal bag lady ski-type hat various layers of coats, plastic bags full to bursting. There is a melancholy in her eyes a sense of something lost. She has 2 fingers missing from her right hand. If you saw her in the street would you notice?

Rhiannon alcoholic, epileptic, proud mother of 6, showing the picture of her twin girls in the paper in a girls football team. Acknowledges that the children are better off with their Dad who looks after them but fiercely passionate about them all and motherhood and how the state removed her children at a time when had she been given help would have enabled the whole family to get through. As it was she was told at the time she was mentally ill, the epilepsy diagnosis came later.

Tony serious long-term alcoholic, friendly and caring, the perfect beta male in many ways, looks after everyone in a very unassuming way, clears away plates, gets cups for tea, always around keeps an eye on the kids to ensure they aren’t getting into trouble. One of the nicest people I have met in a long time the sort of person you’d be lucky to have as a friend.

Dave 32 and therefore younger than me, big lad, bit of bravado but there is clearly a part that shies away from any actual violence it was his demeanour when we were pissing about joking with bananas as pistols, something told me that he had been in situations before where he had come off second best in violent confrontations

Paddy late 50s, the quintessential alcoholic Irishman, glint in the eye, an eye which is just recovering from having received a beating some weeks back. A dextrous man who has undertaken to finish the rug my Mother started making when I was 6! He has nearly finished and it is a wonder to see the speed with which he works. A peaceful pastime for him and strangely captivating to watch. He says doing the rug is like meditation for him it gives him time to think and time to get away from everything.

Alan – the Walter Mitty, a storyteller, convincing, the one you wouldn’t pick as homeless to look at him, erudite, skilled, smartly dressed. He may be the one most likely to get out of the trap because his manner and lucidity may mean he will not be judged in the way so many are judged purely on outwardly appearance.

Jimmy – The ideas man, has a big idea to raise money for charity involving a group of the ‘residents’ it has taken a while for people to convince him to have the confidence to go for it and tell people about the idea and try to get it off the ground. He is the street man, one of the ones who has been there so long he no longer wishes not to live that way, it really is all he knows.

Colin from the North East talks 9 to the dozen, smallish and enthusiastic.

Peter 35 year old American/British, beanpole soft-spoken has an confessed drink problem and also a suspected drugs problem. The archetypal gentle giant, friendly but hugely lacking in any confidence.

There is another guy there, can’t be more than early 30s, he spent the whole morning reading a book the only time I saw him not reading a book was when he was in the church service and when I saw him looking at his library card. His clothes are in good condition and he looks clean. Another just sat in the church most of the time on a mat at the back except for when the service was on and when breakfast was being served, I didn’t see him speak to anyone else the whole morning. He looked young, how young I couldn’t say because when you see what time on the streets does to people who are in their 30s and 40s you realise that our concept of how old you look is yet another thing based on our rather cosseted bourgeois lives.

Most of the older more longer-term homeless men have most of their front teeth missing. A product of the combination of the lack of any dental care for the disenfranchised coupled with regular punishment beatings mooted out by young men often in groups, often attempting to display their masculinity. It quite literally stares you in the face and I would challenge anyone to look and not think very carefully about what this world is doing to not only let this situation happen but try to ignore it. This London borough believes that there are only 12 homeless people in the whole borough, there are twice that in this shelter alone and these are people who have been referred and therefore the long-term homeless. The borough stipulates that the church shelter can only take people for a maximum of 28 days because they claim that by this time they will have been found accommodation. The scheme has been going since last year as a pilot, not one of the occupants of the shelter has been housed in this time. After Easter funding for the shelter stops because it is seen by the borough as a Winter project to provide shelter at the coldest time of the year. Bearing in mind the end of February and March have so far been far colder than Dec and Jan it would be a brave forecaster who could assert that April will herald the sort of weather that’d make you want to sleep outside.

This is not the London they are showing to the International Olympic Committee, they are not saying well we’d like the games but first we’d like to ensure that everyone who lives in London would have the ability to enjoy them. The money that is being spent on the bid for the games would solve the problem of every homeless person in the capital by giving them a step back onto the ladder of society again, ie somewhere to live and a little dignity for them to rebuild things for themselves the way they wish to, not to have to be spoon-fed and live off charity the rest of their lives. Granted, even getting everyone off the street wouldn’t solve the problem of more coming, that is a longer term project and a real battle for society to face up to, but just helping those who now need that help would be far more of a legacy than failing to win the franchise for the 2012 games. And even if London were to win the bid would it not leave a sour taste in your mouth to go and see events knowing that there are people that don’t know where their next meal or bed may be coming from?

You could legitimatly ask what have I done for these people? And the answer would be not a lot, I live far away and I am flighty and often lazy, and the morning I went down to see them and chatted and interacted I gained far more from them than they can have done from me. After all it is not their perceptions of the world that likely need changing it is mine. So perhaps writing this is a start, a chance for me to share the experience in a way so that more people know about it and so that I do not forget it. Maybe the ripple effect will one day stop someone from pre-judging people who are the mirror of what we ourselves could be if one decision in our lifetime might have gone the other way.

Song Of The Day – Rolling Stones – Gimme Shelter

Original Comments:


Mark Ellott made this comment,
I saw a lot of this when I worked in London. How people cannot be moved by this puzzles me.
Visit me @ http://longrider.blog-city.com

[Redbaron responds – Beats the shit out of me too mate. I do firmly believe that people should do a National Community Service when they leave school and it should involve projects such as this. I don’t think it would solve all the problems but I believe it would be a damn good start.]

comment added :: 17th March 2005, 10:43 GMT+01
protagonist made this comment,
Nice blog Red Baron – I like the way you describe things, and it is terribly moving. In America we have a lot of the same – perhaps even more, unfortunately, because so much of this is divided by race. Thanks for writing such a great blog. Mandrake
[Redbaron responds – Thanks mate I appreciate that. It is always far easier to write when it comes from the heart. Here such social problems tend to come from class divides rather than racial ones tho’ by the very nature of the way society views minorities if you fall into the trap of being black and poor then you really are in trouble.]

comment added :: 21st March 2005, 16:03 GMT+01
Pimme made this comment,
Homeless people can be as intelligent and kind as anyone else. Everyone should participate in some sort of charity work on a regular basis. It keeps your life in perspective when you realize that there are people who wish that they had our tiny problems. If you’re lucky enough to help someone get their life turned around, the emotional rewards are priceless.
Visit me @ http://pimme.blog-city.com

comment added :: 10th April 2005, 21:51 GMT+01

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