One of my weekly routines is to visit a homeless soup kitchen, run by Street Spirit (check here for its Facebook page), an organization I happen to chair. This takes place every Saturday night in a car park in the centre of town (Clarence Road, opposite the Salvation Army building) from 7pm. The folk involved in giving out the food etc. kindly let me off the hook when it comes being given specific tasks to do, so I get to spend most of my time wandering round, talking to volunteers and guests, listening to their stories and encouraging.
Last night was one of those occasions. The typical number of guests ranges anywhere upward from twenty and while I don’t rate my counting skills I reckon we had around forty turn up last night and going by my knowledge of the street homeless scene I would reckon the large majority were genuinely homeless and vulnerable folk and not too many freeloaders who are drawn by what is on offer. When I arrive I have a loose strategy of going round the site and greeting people but what happens after depends much upon what arises from those exchanges. Whatever I feel on the night, I invariably come away with a sense of having witnessed life in the raw and what we do is dealing with the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing underlying needs, but still significant. I met one friend who goes out on other days feeding the homeless and could pass on a gift.
Often this is a time to catch on news, although there is often a need to check this out after. One piece of disturbing news was that one rough sleeper, who I have had several conversations with and for all his faults is a civil gentleman and highly intelligent, was recently set on fire by mischief makers targeting the vulnerable (although I am given to understand he is in a stable state). I tried later checking out the story via the Internet and couldn’t find confirmation, although I did see several stories of homeless people being attacked (some I do/did know). It got me thinking that among the wider public while there are many nice people, there are also some ******** who aren’t and this highlights the fact that among the many disadvantages of rough sleeping, the lack of security is one of them.
I met two rough sleeper old friends mildly (I have seen worse) worse for wear because of alcohol. The sadness is in both cases there was every opportunity to come of alcohol, and the streets, and they blew their chances because of the draw of the demon drink. With both I had pleasant and direct conversations. With one I was able to pass on a much needed pair of socks. I was able to do that with another rough sleeper friend who I have got to know in recent months, including a checkered history, and was able to pass on a sleeping bag to him and his newly teamed up mate. In similar vein I had a number of mini conversations with a number of guests and did the one thing I say we can all do – treat them as human beings.
This was a theme I was able to share with a couple of guys who were out on the town and as they passed by were curious of and sympathetic toward what was going on in our operation. It was great to talk generally about the needs of and opportunities for helping the homeless. Thanks to the wonders of mobile Internet I could sign them up to our Facebook group and add to our 2000 members. In passing, I made mention of the three major organizations that can help where we can: HARP – accommodation, Family Mosaic – support needs, STARS – substance misuse. whenever talking to guests, their opinions are on the spectrum from very positive to very negative, but I invariably respond by stating my position of not getting involved in criticism and I generally sign post any newbie rough sleepers to one of these three organizations.
One of my lengthier conversations was with an ex-Army vet. We began ruefully reflecting there are a disproportionate number of army vets on the streets and while the Armed Forces generally treats their members well when they are with them, not enough is done after they leave. For my new friend his was not an untypical story of relationship breakdown leading to him being on the streets. While I generally tell folk I am not a case worker and don’t help much beyond what is on offer without knowing the full facts, I do try to listen and empathise as far as I am able. It seemed he had tried different avenues to get off the streets but without success, and although there were helpful signs for the future, this was his present position. It was an amicable conversation, one of many I have on a regular basis, and we ended up shaking hands before parting.
Based on past experience, I daresay next week when I turn up there will be a different set of tales to tell. I tell them here, not out of show etc. but to highlight there are real needs and opportunities on our doorstep, but above all to emphasize whatever you do (or don’t), please do show compassion to those folks who are on the streets or otherwise in dire straits. Who knows, that could one day be you.