Thursday, 15 November 2012

A Sleepover in London

I spent last night in a church hall which had been turned into a night shelter for the homeless (run at this church here). We brought them in, gave them dinner, a warm bed and breakfast and then sent them on their way. The Church was taking part in a rolling night shelter program that gives homeless people a shelter for a night to make it easier for them to deal with applying for social housing, attending language lessons, and even job interviews, during the day.
 I had never been involved in such a thing before, and was curious to see what it would be like. We had been told that, though we might think that we serving the homeless, we would find that this was nothing more than a cosy comforting half-truth we employ to make ourselves feel like good people. In fact, the homeless guests would be ministering to us. I hadn’t quite believed it, but it turned out to be true.
I arrived late, having had a couple of messages to run in the city, so dinner was half over by the time I got there. Standing at the door looking over the room, it was genuinely difficult to tell homeless guest from well-meaning volunteer. I took a place at a table I thought was full of our guests, and found myself opposite two friends from church. I had known homeless people have a funny sort of dress sense, - understandably so given their circumstances – but it turns out my friends do too.
One of them was deeply involved in a conversation about politics and economics, of a type not altogether dissimilar from those we have here in the Joint Public Issues Team, with a couple of the guests. They spoke of the ‘madness’ of what’s going on in the continent, recession – austerity – bigger recession – sympathy but more austerity. Then the discussion turned to economists. They have a way, opined the homeless guy, of hiding what they do behind a curtain of jargon in order to prevent others getting in on the discussion, and to pretend the facts of life don’t matter (I paraphrase).  I told him a little of my work in JPIT. I regret to report, he laughed.                 
My interlocutor was quite philosophical about his own situation. “It’s funny” he said, “given my circumstances, but I used to be a volunteer." He then told me how he used to do work voluntarily with young offenders. He made some ‘decisions’, he said, slightly obliquely,  - one could argue the toss about whether they were right or wrong - but it is "interesting" to see where they led. So, I thought, this guy was once the good citizen who gave up his time voluntarily to help others. The type we all look up to
The conversation stopped shortly afterwards, when another guest started playing the piano.
Ahh, how nice it is to be young, that you can be so naive and impressionable” I hear the cynics out there cry. “Your guests might all have been nice guys, but night shelters vet people thoroughly before allowing them in. You were speaking to a select few in a controlled area” True enough, but these people could easily be the same sort of people I will step over on the way home from work today; people who have simply run out of luck, or become the loser in the shortage of housing. Consider this list of the rich and famous who became homeless. Or this of the homeless who became rich and famous (it includes James Bond). It is easily done, but we must be careful not to stigmatise those who sleep on the streets.