Street Spirit

I want to start by telling a story about two very different people that while at opposite ends of the social spectrum did cross paths from time to time. Bill was in want of nothing. He was a rich man, who lived in a nice house, in a respectable neighbourhood. He was doing ok thank you: good family relationships, good job and a respected pillar of the community. Ben, on the other hand, had nothing other than the clothes he stood up in and what he carried around. He had “issues”, no support network, no paid work, no money coming in and nowhere to stay, and being at the bottom of society’s pile there were those around to do him down. On the occasions when Ben’s path crossed with that of Bill, Bill gave him short shrift, having no inclination whatsoever to show compassion on Ben.

One could say that Bill and Ben were at opposite ends of life’s spectrum. One might even add: Bill’s heaven contrasted with Ben’s hell. But there was a twist in the tale. When Bill and Ben died, it was Bill who ended up in hell and Ben in heaven. In case you are thinking I am making the story up, this was in essence the start of a story Jesus of Nazareth told about a rich man and Lazarus, as recorded in Luke 16v19-31, where you can find how the story ended and what lessons can be drawn. I mention this story because I have come across many Bills in my life and am nowadays coming across a lot more Bens. I have done a number of posts already about the plight of the homeless, causes, cures etc., in particular in my home town of Southend, and will try not to repeat too much of it now.

One of the groups making a difference, albeit small, is Street Spirit. It is non-religious and non-political, reflecting the spectrum of opinion of those who are part of it. It started as a response by well meaning folk who recognized that Southend has a rough sleeper problem and wanted to do something that would make a real difference, not knowing quite what. As in many things in life, a need is seen and often by a process of trial and error ways are found to meet that need and in a way that complements what else is going on to help these people. Right now, the main work is to set up stall in pre-arranged spot in central Southend, every Saturday night, when most of the services intended for homeless folk are shut down, and provide food and limited material provision to rough sleepers.

For the last two weeks that I have being going along, we decided it would be a good idea to start an informal register of the people who we were helping and what their homeless status and current situation was. This is not something to be shared here for obvious reasons but there were reasons for doing this and what we found was revealing. We had earlier been accused of helping people who really didn’t need our help and allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of, and to an extent this was true. In trying to deal with needs we knew to exist, it is possible to attract “freeloaders”, e.g. people who do have a place to stay but pretend to be homeless to get money or things, in order to finance a drug habit or such like. While it is nigh impossible to stop people slipping though the net, it became clear as a result of the registration that most of the over twenty people coming to us both weeks were genuine rough sleepers, ranging from sleeping on the streets to sleeping on friends’ sofas or similar. Interestingly, half of those who came the first week were replaced by a different half that came the second week.

What I found valuable was getting to know better the people we were trying to help. Asking such deep and sometimes painful questions was at times a harrowing and usually a humbling experience, even trying to be delicate and sensitive when doing so. Listening to people’s stories, and I suspect in most cases the truth was being told, was also an emotional experience, but well worth doing. What we did not want is to help people in this practical way and see them return week after week, although in reality that is what happens. Some of the questions were around what other “helps” were being engaged with, the prospect of finding accommodation, i.e. off the streets, the benefits situation and issues, such as alcohol addiction and mental ill health or other factors that caused the person to be on the streets in the first place. All the time, we urged the people we spoke to, to engage with services, however inadequate they deemed them to be and take every opportunity to improve their situation. In psychological terms, we wanted people to gradually rise to the top of the “pyramid” of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Some results were in line with might be expected but there were surprises too. Many felt they had been let down by the services, although we tried never to take sides, knowing some of the people involved. Sometimes services we might hope would be available, such as mental health, were blatantly absent. Some were on benefits of a sort but many weren’t and of those who weren’t it was because they weren’t prepared for the rigmarole of complying with what was needed to get the benefits or they had been “sanctioned” for some supposed misdemeanor. Besides making the observation that there was invariably a shortage of suitable, affordable accommodation, and some services were non-existent or weren’t fit for purpose or not addressing individual needs, I was left with a deep impression that there were often demons holding people back. Not the demons we read of in the Bible but the demons of alcohol dependency or depression, despondency and disempowerment.

Out of respect for my co-workers and not wanting to intrude when not welcome or be accused of manipulation, I tend to avoid religion when talking to rough sleepers. On one occasion, I was asked to pray and I did, but with sadness when he left, realizing the many unmet needs. My dream still is to do something along the lines of General William Booth of the Salvation Army in the nineteenth century: take people from their surroundings to a supportive, rural environment, work with them through their issues, including doing meaningful work, and if possible save their soul, but not to abandon them altogether when on the mend. It is a dream I don’t see happening in my lifetime but it is good to dream but importantly it is good to show tiny bits of kindness that do make a difference.

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