I have more than once reflected in my many blogs on the subject of homelessness that I have said in essence all I wanted to say, yet I continue to find things happening that make me want to say more. Something I feel needs to be said and why I devote a whole posting to the topic, is those I especially admire and who we need more of are people who stick to the task, come rain, come shine, taking responsibility, without ostentation, realizing there remains work to do that can’t / won’t be done right away and it is such people that provide the backbone of what needs doing in the homeless area.
I have been working more than half time in the community for the past 15 years and over the latter half of that time homelessness has been the main area for my activism and most of that time it has been on a voluntary (i.e. unpaid basis) rather than as someone paid to do a job. I say that not to blow my own trumpet as it were, realizing I have made many mistakes, there has been times when my zeal has been flagging and there are many others who do a fantastic job helping the vulnerable and needy, but rather to set out my credentials as I survey the scene locally and further afield. Besides writing, my main three areas of activity these days is chairing Street Spirit (a soup kitchen), chairing Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN), and managing a homeless night shelter.
There is a welcome tendency for people to respond to need when they see it (noticeably, particularly over the Christmas that has past). Then often that initial enthusiasm wanes but still the need remains, and even though only a tiny dent has been made it is not to be sneezed at. Something often missed is the help that is most valued is not what people provide according to their own convenience but what is needed to meet a need, the doing of which is often inconvenient. Often I have seen weariness creeping in and people getting discouraged. Most noticeably, it is seen among those who have worked hard over a long period to make a difference, and with which I truly sympathise. Some start off enthusiastically and stop after a while. Sometimes, there are good reasons for this. For example, our good work can ruin our health, interfere with family life, and get in the way of other things we should be doing. Sometimes, sadly, it can be a passing fad of being a do gooder.
But sometimes, some of the things that can be seen as obstacles stopping further involvement can, if we recognize what is happening, be overcome, especially with the right sort of help. I know all too well, for example, how some have been phased by something unpleasant and feel unable to continue. Some who help with all good intentions wake up to the reality that not everything is at it seems. We sometimes find the very people we try to help to be manipulative, ungrateful and seem to make little progress as a result of our efforts and then our good intentions are misconstrued and criticised by those who should know better. It is easy to become disillusioned and critical because the system appears broken and it all looks a mess. I am pretty sure that other reasons can be found but the upshot is all too often people do not stick to the task.
I have just now got back to the land of the living after a long stint at my night shelter. While it is important to offload and be detached from what has gone on before, it is impossible to do so altogether, and things can weigh heavily. Even so, as I try to view these matters realistically, I like to think I am making a difference, along with those who I work with. Every shelter session is different. Sometimes there are serious incidents to deal with and sometimes all is well and at peace. Always, we try to be welcoming to the rough sleepers guests we serve, giving them food, shelter and human kindness. Yet afterwards we send them back onto the streets hoping we have met a need and they will eventually get to a better place, seeing our efforts as pieces in a jigsaw and a links in a chain, knowing all too well it is often the case that the help we would like to think is out there isn’t.
Today, for example, I sense that for a number of our guests there was an element of being emotionally overwrought, especially when some articulated their own fears and disappointments as they considered the position they were in. While we cannot pretend to have addressed many of these matters, I feel by showing kindness we have at least helped – but without doubt there is a long way still to go. Some of our guests have shown recently unsocial traits meaning they may then get excluded. This is always a regrettable decision and is done with the welfare of other guests and volunteers in mind. It also illustrates one of the reasons why, even if they wanted to, not every rough sleeper can be accommodated in our night shelter. One poignant example affecting several in the rough sleeper community and who work with them, is of a young man that was found dead earlier in the week, who was a rough sleeper. Like some, I previously had positive interactions with him, yet he was evicted from my shelter on Christmas day because of his behavior.
There are many words of wisdom I could pass onto those who for good reasons wish to help, even if in a tiny way, the homeless. Undoubtedly, the needs are many. It is difficult to know where to begin. While there are words of advice like looking to fill where the gaps are, acting smart, working with others, learning to offload, being realistic, setting goals, recognizing limitations, maintaining a balanced lifestyle, sorting out fact from fiction, seeing the bigger picture, preparing to win the end game, forgiving those who hurt us, etc., one thing I see as especially important and would want to encourage, with reference to the title, is to stick to the task in hand.