Homelessness – back to reality

During these past few weeks, like many I have been caught up with the election, and have blogged about various aspects. But now it has happened and as it is now business as normal (although some might argue if that can be so) the opportunity to write about more regular stuff lends itself. I was brought down to earth with a bump at the weekend as both on Saturday and Sunday I got involved with regular projects that seek to help the homeless (Street Spirit and St. Andrew’s Open House). It made me think about some hard truths.

A week ago, I met up with an old friend who had been managing a homeless / compassion project reaching out to the needy in the surrounding community. Given he had stuck at the job for over three years when every day he would encounter a whole plethora of human need, including harrowing situations over which he had little control, it was a wonder he lasted so long. We shared also the stark reality of compassion fatigue. Personally speaking, when I come across a bunch of homeless guys (and gals) many I know but some I don’t, I know how frustrating it can be when you can do so little and the people you want to help don’t help themselves. As a result one is tempted to switch off and to become hard and cynical, despite wanting to help and make a difference, yet managing still to do so.

I had a number of conversations with my homeless friends, when I did the listening. Rather than come up with simplistic solutions and hollow empathy, I sought in each case to respond as best I could, knowing I know more than most what’s what and what works (and a lot that doesn’t work). Most of all I sought to affirm each one as the precious human beings they are. How do you help a newly homeless young guy who had recently split from his wife after losing a child, with nowhere to stay and any official service doesn’t kick in for another 36 hours and they are not likely to be the panacea he needs? How do you help the guy who had been self harming, was depressed and suicidal, unable to see clearly where there was hope? How do you help the Latvian guy with no recourse to public funds? How do you help the guy living in a barely furnished bed sit, with no money coming in (other than by begging) because his benefits had been cut, whose gas and electricity had been turned off because he couldn’t pay, and now he was looking forward to a visit from Council appointed bailiffs to reclaim in kind council tax arrears plus a surcharge for the service? There were other stories also but for each of these incidents I sought to guide the folk as best I could, but realizing there was a way to go. Sometimes it was giving bottles of water, on this occasion giving out of sleeping bags. trying to point people in the right direction, but most of all showing kindness, a listening ear and a friendly face

It made me realize that there was a job to be done and if not me then who? Of course there are funded services with all sorts of people who can and do help but always there are big gaps which need people like us to help fill. I believe in Southend where I live there are many positives, for example good hearted people who want to help and do help, organizations that help to sort out homeless and related issues and a sympathetic council but the needs are considerable nevertheless. Today I spoke to some folk about a new initiative, called Citizens Southend, part of a national network. This is nothing new but always there is a need to drive the agenda of addressing the needs in our society, whether homelessness or whatever.

While my community mantra is faith driven, I recognize no faith has a monopoly on human kindness and there is evidence of this from all faiths and none. The same goes with politics. While the Conservative agenda on housing and homelessness doesn’t compare favourably with that of the other parties, for how can growing the economy deal with some of the here and now situations such as described earlier, the needs and some of the solutions cut across any political divide? When the other day I sent out an SOS because I had run out of sleeping bags to give out to rough sleepers, the answer arrived in the post today – six sleeping bags and perfectly suitable given the need we were trying to meet – and the person who made the donation (unless she has changed here tune recently, which I doubt) is as Conservative as you can get.

Undoubtedly, some of the needs around homelessness and housing require political solutions, but the reality is we have to work with what we have (already I have been hearing some encouraging noises from our local council on this score). Moreover, there are good folk on my doorstep who want to make a difference to join with. So compassion fatigue must be put to one side, for there is a job to be done and we must do it, and we need to work together wisely yet with compassion. So it really is back to work!

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