57 West (East) and the homeless

To be precise and according to my understanding, there are two entities next to each other, and next to Sainsbury’s, close to the town centre, that share the same address – 57 London Road, Southend. These comprise what is now a church – 57 West and next door to it is Southend Christian Bookshop (57 East), who are the landlords.

What 57 West does and seeks to do is remarkable. It could be seen as a new expression of church, albeit one that is linked to the well established organisation – the Baptist Union, but it is not church as we tend to know it, insofar many of the gubbins we associate with church are not there. The bottom line is that it serves the typically unchurched, many of which might feel deterred from “normal” church, and those with the greatest needs. When it started up a couple of years ago, as a new “church plant”, one of the ideas was to reach out to Southend’s rapidly growing student population, and while many agree there is a big need in that area still it found it was drawing homeless folk and nowadays runs a wide range of activities for them. Most importantly, it provides a safe space for vulnerable adults through its drop in services. While there is a minister in charge, most of the work is done by volunteers, its premises are inviting yet basic and the whole operation is run on a shoe string.

It so happened, I popped in last night. My excuse was to deliver some rough sleeper leaflets (although I generally find visiting there an uplifting experience), and it was a typical operation where guests were served with a meal, there being a number of “old friends” from among volunteers and guests. I stayed no more than 15 minutes but was able to have a number of conversations. One was with Jack (not his real name) a rough sleeper I have known for while, who among other things shares my love for poetry. Sadly, Jack had been in hospital for a week and the reason he was there in the first place was he had been beaten up. He had earlier that day been discharged and found himself yet again on the streets. He was surprisingly upbeat given his situation but also he was much appreciative of what 57 West were able to provide. While Jack’s situation is unique, I could see looking around and chatting there were many there last night who had needs, and while there is much work that still needs to be done, the folk from 57 West are doing at least something, and they deserve to be encouraged and supported in what they are doing.

I should mention its neighbor and landlord, 57 East. While separate enterprises, they too serve the homeless along with its main business of selling Christian books and other paraphernalia. It has been going for a long time and is still going when many Christian bookshops have closed down, for the times we live in like the popularity of e-commerce and less people reading tend not to encourage such enterprises or at least not in the way we have been used to. As far as I am concerned Southend Christian Bookshop is a veritable Aladdin’s cave with treasures contained therein not found elsewhere in the town and one I will continue to support and sing its praises. What is not often realized is that it has often attracted rough sleepers, who are helped. Its owner and manager have a heart for the homeless, and that has something to do with it. It doesn’t do so for ostentation but over the years it has served many such folk.

All of this brings me to my last point, which is there is a homeless need in Southend as in many other parts of the country. I have already blogged about this in several places and have no intention of repeating here other than to highlight that 57 (West and East) are two further initiatives doing something about it and the report in yesterdays local paper (Southend Echo) with the front page headline: “Homeless set up camp on our beach”. Following my visit to 57 West, after which I attended my church prayer meeting, I decided to check out the camp, which I was already aware off. There wasn’t much to see other than three tents and some unattended sleeping stuff. Being a sultry evening, there were still a number of visitors milling around, just before 10pm. While I did see a couple of homeless folk, they weren’t known to me and I decided to not get involved, knowing there will be further developments.

The Echo story had the title: “Beach tents turn town into Homeless-on-Sea”. It quoted two Councillors (Martin Terry and David Norman) both members of the Council cabinet. Cllr Terry appeared to be blaming government cuts as to why we are seeing an increase in people of Southend’s streets. Cllr Norman made mention of the good work being done by various outreach services supported by the Council. The article then asks what readers think? My contribution will be to email the link to this blog to the Echo and carrying on being a homeless activist. After all, having folk sleep on our streets is inhuman and unacceptable. It seems to me that my argument for doing anything tends to be based on the need for a compassionate human response. 57 West and East are part of that response and in the main it is all for free. There is an even more compelling argument, and that is an economic one, and homeless people, especially the chronically excluded, are a cost strain on resources. Just maybe, instead of telling 57 West to keep up the good work, give them some hard cash as well so they can do more and better!

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