What it means to be homeless
Homeless in Hastings: What it means to be homeless
by Surviving Christmas Treasurer and local Clerygyman, Martin Harper
There is a phrase in the Old Testament 'My father was a wandering Aramaean'. The Aramaeans were a nomadic people, moving from place to place with their flocks and camels, pitching their tents adjacent to new pastures. But they were not homeless. Their tents were their homes, and they lived with their families and kinsmen, surrounded by their worldly goods.
According to those in authority today, there are no homeless people. Everyone - and I mean everyone - has access to accommodation, even though that might be in a hostel, bed and breakfast accommodation, or whatever. Therefore anyone who is homeless, anyone sleeping rough, is deemed to be doing so by their own choice. Many charities who have in the past helped the homeless have had their grants cut because there is not supposed to be any need for them to meet. People providing short-term help such as soup runs and sandwiches have also been criticised as acting against the public interest and making it possible for people to survive on the street when they should be in a hostel or some such accommodation. In a way, people who promote this idea - of their being no homelessness except by choice do have a point.
However, there are a few who live out on the street - I will come back to this - and there are many, many more who, whilst they may have a roof over their heads, are nonetheless in my opinion homeless. There is a world of difference between being roofless and being homeless. Very few people in this country today are roofless except by choice. Many however are homeless.
What does home mean to you? I know what it means to me. Home is where I go when I want to be with family, where I can feel safe and secure. Home is somewhere where I have a front door and can decide who I do and who I do not invite in. Home is somewhere where I can be warm, watch TV, read, cook, wash, and do all the things that make our life complete and which we all so often take for granted.
If you are living on your own, far from friends and relatives, surviving the best you can on handouts whether from the state or others, then you are homeless. If you live in a bed-sit or lodgings where your landlord expects you to be out after 7 or 8 in the morning and not to come back until 7 or 8 in the evening, then you are homeless. If you live in accommodation where you are not allowed to have your friends in, or where you cannot stand the people you are forced to live with, then you are homeless. If you live in damp, unhealthy conditions, unable to pay the bills, with essential services cut off or with a lack of food and clothing, then the quality of any home you have is questionable.
Many of the people I will mention tonight might not be roofless, but they are often homeless, friendless, unloved, un-cared for and in the depths of despair.
Last year we came across two young people in the doorway of a shop in Hastings, begging for money. They were wary of us at first, because they thought we might be the police. After we had provided some food, they began to talk. He had recently been released from prison in Durham; she came from South London. They had been given a bed-sit in Hastings just before Christmas - it was very nice (we were to see it later) - it was furnished, had a small kitchenette, had a shared bathroom and had heating. Unfortunately, this couple had no money - the DSS offices were closed and the flat was ill equipped: no saucepans or kitchen utensils, none of the things you need to survive even in a home. So they were begging for food, and money to buy a hot drink. We were able to gain their trust and they gave us their address. We returned later that evening with clothing, with pans and utensils, some basic foodstuffs, and a few luxuries - razor, toothbrushes, soap and make-up. They were overjoyed - just like a real Christmas she said, as they called in the occupants of the adjacent rooms, and immediately shared their good fortune. A spirit of generosity so seldom found amongst other better off people!
Certain parts of Hastings and St. Leonard's have for many years been areas of great poverty on a par with some of the worst areas of this country. A decaying seaside town, Hastings has attracted many people for a variety of reasons. Thought by some to be a healthy seaside area, Hastings has had attraction to many people running care homes, whether for the elderly, children, mentally ill, etc. The town is also at the end of the railway line from London and some people just end up there. And as holidays in this country have decreased and people have sought holidays in hotter climes, Hastings has had a surfeit of hotel and boarding house accommodation, much of it not meeting the sort of standards that most people expect today. Combine this with high unemployment and property prices far below surrounding areas, and there is a recipe for need in the community. None of this was helped by the policies of the eighties and nineties, with many institutions in London and elsewhere closing in favour of 'community care' - a great idea, but so often meaning a lack of care, where those who cannot cope are hidden away in substandard accommodation to fend for themselves with little real support. And many of those people too generated towards Hastings and St. Leonard's.
All this was very apparent in the eighties in Hastings, and some people began to take note. But, as so often happens, much of it was just talk and not action. It was in this climate that a new project was launched - small scale, just a drop in the ocean, but aimed at a specific need.
It must have been about seventeen or eighteen years ago that a man called Trevor Wilton met with Sharon, later to be his wife, and a few friends for a Christmas meal. I believe it was Boxing Day, when this group of friends sat in by the window in a seafront restaurant in St. Leonard's, to share a festive meal. Trevor and his friends became acutely aware whilst they sat there, that outside the window, walking past in the cold and rain, were a number of people who appeared to have nothing - shabbily dressed, they were not at home, they were alone, and looked cold and dejected. That experience was to change peoples lives.
I wonder how often we have seen someone in apparent need, and, unable to do anything at that moment, have put it to the back of our mind? I know I have - the urgency of the moment has disappeared and I have forgotten all about it. But Trevor and his friends were different - they were genuinely affected by what they saw, and set out to find out why these people were out in the cold and wet.
The answer was simple - people had nowhere to go. Over the Christmas period, the tearooms and shelters they used throughout the year were closed. Yet these people were homeless - not roofless - but homeless. And at Christmas, amongst the glitz and glamour of celebrations, whilst most people were gorging themselves on too much food, celebrating with families and friends, the towns throbbing with noise in the pubs and clubs, there were a significant number of lonely, unhappy people many of whom had to resort to walking the streets from morning to evening before they could return to whatever shelter they had.
At that time there were also a number of homeless people in and around Hastings as well. I remember discussing this problem at the Deanery Synod - I actually toured the town on several evenings with Father Clinch - Fr. Click as he is often called trying to find homeless people, and perhaps take some photographs, to resource our discussions. We failed to find anyone - not because they do not exist, but because they are invisible. This was brought home to me some months later when, recounting the story to John, he offered to show us what we had been looking for. John, a gentle giant of a man, had himself lived rough - you may nowadays see his frequent letters to the Observer often about social issues. John tells me he reached rock bottom when he woke up one morning in the Park with his beard frozen to the ground. Beside him was the empty hairspray container he had been drinking from hairspray has an alcohol content - and he knew that he either had to do something about his problems or die within a relatively short time. Anyway, John took us out and showed us where people were - which derelict basement was being used, which bush, which rubbish skip. And then of course there were the caves and the squats. It was an eye opener.
Anyway, back to Trevor! Trevor and his friends did not forget what they had seen that Christmas, but instead they started planning to do something about it. Trevor was a member of the congregation at Christ Church, St. Leonard's - a church which at that time had a great social outreach. A former curate, Fr. Mellor, had been instrumental in starting the Fellowship of St. Nicholas working with children in need. There was Our Lady's House, an old people's home, a thriving scout and guide group, youth club, men's club, mothers union and much else. And a Church School next to the church, with halls shared between church and school. Trevor approached the Rector, Fr. Carter, with the proposal that we open the halls for three days over Christmas, to provide food and warmth and friendship for anyone who wanted it. And so a new project was born, called at that time Crisis at Christmas, after the London project already in existence.
Like most ideas, they are fine as ideas but when you come to put them into action you discover all the problems! Well, Trevor and his friends had little experience of such a project. An appeal - mainly to the local congregation - elicited help, but what was needed? And more importantly, who would turn up to use the facilities provided? That year, there was a very steep learning curve - and people like John were invaluable! Publicity was by word of mouth and through fly posters left over the town. One of the two halls was set aside as a dining room as it had the kitchen next to it. The other hall was transformed with chairs and other furniture to make it homely, and a tea bar set up. Lots of people were persuaded to come along and entertain - a pianist, singers, even a magician I think! People came in their dozens and it was hard to tell who was a helper and who was there because they were lonely or homeless or whatever. Father Carter spent all his Christmas, when not in church, in the centre. Ann Moon and co. ran the kitchen - Ann was later to receive an MBE for her contribution over the years. She welcomed all clergy into the kitchen (they were expected to roll up their sleeves and help) but anyone else not on her team was quickly shooed away!
Lots of mistakes were made, mainly through lack of thought and understanding! Imagine what it must be like if you have not had a proper meal for months, maybe years. Your stomach would have shrunk, your digestive system might have been ruined by poor food and maybe alcohol or worse. To be sat down and given a large Christmas dinner with all the trimmings - well, what would you make of it? Some just sat and stared. Others picked at food - some tried to eat and were physically sick. People came in all conditions - often with smelly, dishevelled clothing, and in need of a good bath and a haircut! That first year we all felt so inadequate - we did our best, but learnt so much.
Over the next few years the project developed. We ensured a doctor was available. A clothing store was developed, and we tried particularly to get things like underwear - Councillor Richard Stevens started his yearly sock appeal. Meals were important we learnt to give small portions! But we also developed the tea bar, with small snacks - \biscuits, fruit, sweets. Many couldn't manage a meal. We learnt not to be social workers! One of the best things helpers could do was talk to people - or leave them alone if they preferred. We provided a hairdresser and a chiropodist. We found that cigarettes were important. Some people thought we shouldn't encourage smoking - but when you are as low as you can get, maybe with problems about drink and drugs, mental problems, lonely, cold, wet, and more - well the problems of smoking are far outweighed by your need for a ciggy! Cigarettes were readily handed out to anyone who needed one. So too were tins of pet food! Not that we encouraged anyone to eat it of course, but we learnt quickly how important a dog could be to someone on the streets. It was more than the sympathy vote, a means to get money - for those on the street a dog provided both protection and warmth.
We also learnt that rules were important. No alcohol was to be taken onto the premises - many were alcoholics, and a days drinking could lead to arguments and violence. We had unalterable opening and closing times. We could not address some problems, but could only offer sympathy and a listening ear.
Who came? All sorts of people! People who lived alone, people from different backgrounds. There were people with problems - alcoholism was rife, so too were mental illnesses, family breakdowns, stress, unemployment and much more - and people did not just have one problem - they had a multitude of problems. There was Jim, who had a steel plate in his head following a scaffolding accident, lvan who talked a lot to himself but in the early days was quite presentable. Richard and one or two others who decided they were helpers and for years have manned the doors, run errands and made themselves a part of the project. John without whose help many more mistakes would have been made. There was the gypsy family who arrived on Christmas day from Hollington complete with pony and cart, the children cold, un-fed and having nothing, soaking wet and hungry. Then there was the chap with the Alsatian - I'm not good with dogs, but one year I spent hours at the vets with this flea bitten animal (not to mention his flea bitten owner!) So many people and so many stories!
But there were also the helpers - the teenagers that tuned up for three days to help because here they found the real meaning of Christmas, away from the mountains of food and the Queens speech and the family arguments. And a core of people who have helped year after year after year.
And all this has been funded locally, through appeals. Never have we gone short despite some panics! The project has been run on faith - and God has never let us down.
Although the first years were in the halls at Christ Church, we later had to move, first a little up the road to the old Congregational church (that's in itself is another story) and then to the YMCA were we have been for some years now. The project was given a more permanent nature - it was registered with the Charity Commission, and as a result had to change its name to 'Surviving Christmas'. And, with a committee and an annual meeting and all that goes with an established organisation, it continued to develop its work.
Some things remain the same. Surviving Christmas still provides a place for people to go for three days over the Christmas period. It is still funded largely by local support, although it now needs not the few hundred pounds raised that first year, but nearly twenty thousand pounds to fund the work now done. The tea bar is still there, and the clothing store, and the friendship. We still have a hairdresser. So what is new'?
Well the move to the YMCA itself brought some benefits. More space, better toilet facilities, shower facilities and even a washing machine! But there were other developments too, and these included outreach to people who could not get to the centre over Christmas.
Firstly, there were the hampers. We had early on given goodie bags to guests as they left us - a few sandwiches, biscuits, etc. But we also found that there were many people in the town - some single, some elderly and some families - who had nothing extra over Christmas. In fact, some families had even less food than usual over Christmas. Parents will often spend all their 'social' on presents for the kids so they do not miss out, and then go without food over Christmas. So we started providing hampers containing a few tins, maybe biscuits, sweets, and whatever else we can just to provide a bit of extra. Family boxes might also contain the odd toy as well. These boxes are delivered by us over the three-day period of the project.
Who gets these hampers? Well we get the names from a variety of sources - and the recipients themselves are unaware of how they come to us. We have built up a good network over the years, but not one I would divulge! Some people we see year after year, although not always at the same address. They are usually extremely grateful for what they get. Recently, as we have delivered parcels, we have also been able to find out any specific needs, and often we return with anything from clothing to baby food.
It is a tiring but rewarding task! And you never know what to expect. I think it was two years ago that we were delivering a parcel to a single man in St. Leonard's. Vicki went to the door with one of her Venture Scouts - the doorbell was rung, and through the glass she saw a man approaching. It was early afternoon, and he appeared not to have a shirt on. Through the door Vicki explained that she had a food parcel for him - would he like to take it? Yes he would - the door opened - only to reveal a redheaded man stark naked! The parcel was hastily left as he shouted thank-you! Vicki assures me the ginger hair was definitely natural!
Another way people are helped is through food vouchers. Names of people come mainly through social workers and the health team, and several thousands of pounds worth of Tesco's vouchers are now distributed each year. They can be redeemed for virtually whatever the person concerned wants, although they cannot be exchanged for alcohol.
At the back of church is a small display. The photos were taken at last Christmas's project, and everyone in the photos was happy to have their picture taken. But we do not usually take photos - nor do we ask people who they are or why they have come.
The project takes a lot of organisation, and needs a lot of money! But it is only a small stopgap project, only there three days a year. It is no more than a band-aid plaster - but it does meet a very real need.
I said I would return to those who live on the streets. The problem of homelessness, or rooflessness I should say, does seem to have diminished but it is still there. It always saddens us to find someone living rough especially when the project has ended and those people did not know about it. This year, as the project drew to a close, there was a man sleeping rough in the back doorway to Woolworth's in Hastings. He had a sleeping bag, and we were able to give him some food. Another man was in the foyer of Hastings railway station. A few days later, late in the evening, we found a young man sleeping rough in a doorway in Western Road in Bexhill. It was a freezing cold night, and he was just sitting there in his clothes, boots off beside him. We think he had probably recently been discharged form prison in the West Country. We managed to get him a survival bag to sleep in, and supplied hot soup and some sandwiches.
Is the Surviving Christmas project needed? Yes it most certainly is. Things have changed over the last few years, but there is, believe me, no evidence to suggest that the need in this area has lessened.
Is it enough? No, not by a long way. And this brings me to the last area I want to mention - my dream for the future, a dream I know I share with many others, including Fr. Robin.
Surviving Christmas has, over recent years, through the co-operation of Hastings council, been able to find accommodation for some roofless people who have arrived at the project. But it cannot help those who have been through the system, and are no longer welcomed by private landlords. Nor can we help those who have an addiction and need sorting out. Hastings does not have a night shelter, nor does it have a detox unit. Both are still desperately needed. How can you tell someone who is in a bad way, with no money, to go to a shelter when the nearest one is Brighton, some 50 miles away? ,
Last Saturday I was privileged to be able to go to Brighton in company with a few of you here tonight, to go to St. Patrick's to celebrate St. Patrick's day with the most wonderful Mass and procession and lunch. St. Patrick's was a run-down church, with a minute congregation, when Father Alan was appointed as their Vicar. Many of you will remember him coming here to St. Michaels to talk about his work last year. It started with Joseph and Julie being allowed to stay a night in the church on a cold winters night, and has developed into a centre which has two night shelters, temporary flat accommodation built in a four story block within the church itself, new move on accommodation planned - and a wonderful worship centre where new life has been breathed into the parish because they have found a purpose. I'm told Philip and Elizabeth will be visiting next week!
My dream? A night shelter, possibly with a detox unit, here in this area - Hastings or Bexhill. Where exactly? Well, talk to Robin or myself after a drink or two and we might tell you our ideas! But there are some obvious places in the area - large churches, centrally situated, with small declining congregations and struggling to survive. Surely one of these places could be put to better use? Not only could we provide a desperately needed facility - we would breath new life into the worship side of the church as well, making the church relevant to today's society, working as I believe God intended through the social gospel, bringing good news to the poor, biding up the wounds, healing the sick and making the love of Christ a reality.
And they shall say to him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, Lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?' And the King will answer, 'in truth I tell you, so far as you did this to the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.'