Yesterday afternoon my husband and I went for a dog walk, and when we got back I made the mistake of hanging up my coat in the porch. This meant that later, about 5.30, when I went to put it on to go to Sunday evening mass, the lining was absolutely freezing.
We went out to the car. Outside it was freezing fog – the car was really cold, and, to add insult to injury, when we made a right turn into a mist-filled road, my husband had to open the window next to the passenger seat to look left properly, so I got a blast of freezing mist to add to my misery. He then briefly opened the window next to the driver seat too, so we got assailed by cold from both sides. I was already chilled to the bone by my coat and did not feel in a prayerful mood going to mass. Our car heater didn’t kick in until we were nearly at our destination, I was frightened by the poor visibility on the roads and kept saying that perhaps we should turn back. He said the mist would clear and it would be fine, and he was right. We live in a bit of a hollow and, for the most part, the situation got better on the roads nearer the church, although there was one bit where we had to slow right down.
Once we had parked I was eager to get into the church as soon as possible. We rushed to the pedestrian crossing and to the street where our church is – it was full of mist, like some Victorian painting by John Atkinson Grimshaw. We walked quickly in the dark past the lit up pub and the charity shops, close for the night. It was brutally cold and the church would be warm. I noticed the man in the doorway as we went past.
I live in a city where there are many, many rough sleepers. I always try and buy a ‘Big Issue’ and I always try to give to buskers, but I never give money directly to anyone simply begging on the street. I have, on rare occasions, bought hot drinks and food, but not as often as I should. I support Shelter and I keep meaning to set up a direct debit to a more local homeless shelter, but I haven’t as yet. I have walked past many, many rough sleepers, and felt awful and said a prayer but felt overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. If I gave money would it make matters worse and fund an alcohol/drug addiction? Did I have time to talk to someone who might have emotional and mental needs I could not begin to address? Best to leave it to the experts, I reasoned. And say a prayer.
Last night was different. My coat had been SO cold, the car and been SO cold, the draught from the car open windows had been SO cold that somehow, freezing as I was, it felt barbaric to run past him to mass.
So I stopped. And the man told me that he had nowhere to go. I suggested a couple of homeless shelters I had heard of – he said that they were closed, and that because he wasn’t from this country he had no shelter. He had seasonal work but when it wasn’t the right time he had nowhere to stay. I wasn’t sure if he was telling me the truth. I couldn’t believe that there was nowhere in the city. But it was SO cold. I was so cold, and I was talking to a fellow human being who was sitting in freezing fog in a doorway, and I was late for mass. So I broke my habit and gave him more money than I had ever given a homeless person and begged him to go to a bed and breakfast for the night. He was really surprised and thanked me. I hope he spent it on a B & B and not on drink in the pub. He didn’t smell strongly of alcohol, and if I were him I’d have definitely gone for the bed and breakfast – but then again, I’m not him. I didn’t feel entirely sure I had done the right thing but I felt a certain relief that I could now go to mass and warm myself up with a clear conscience. Although I felt a bit guilty about spending our family money like that.
My family were patiently waiting for me outside the church and I ran towards them, and as I did I noticed another figure in a doorway. I ignored it.
So we went into mass, into a blissfully warm church, and we sang the opening hymn and the priest announced it was Homeless Sunday, where we prayed for the homeless and those who help them. We did our confession of sins, and I was aware of that second figure in the doorway. I knew I had given more money than I should to a man I wasn’t entirely sure was telling me the truth. Why hadn’t I stopped for the second person?
So as the readings began I turned to my husband and said I was going to talk to the second person and tell him the church was warm and he was welcome.
When I found this second man he was sitting in the freezing mist, on a piece of cardboard on the doorstep of a charity shop, drinking from a small bottle of milk. I told him he was welcome in the warm church but he shook his head vehemently. This made me sad. What had happened that made this man prefer to sit out alone in the cold rather than come in to our church and be warm? To be clear at this point – there are often rough sleepers in our church, sitting in mass to keep warm – and on Friday nights over winter our church hall is open to them to stay all night. People from our church volunteer to help. And to be further clear – I am not one of them.
I asked this man had he anywhere to sleep – and he said that later he would go to the shelter by the railway station. So I knew that at least he would have a bed for the night. He wouldn’t come into mass although the temperature was below freezing and getting lower by the minute and he was drinking cold milk. I didn’t have the same amount of money I had given to the first person (who had said nothing about the shelter by the railway station) but I did have ten pounds left – so I gave it to him and asked him to get a warm meal somewhere so that he could get out of the cold for a few hours. Ten pounds might not buy him a restaurant meal – but it might get him something. He smiled and took it. I went back into mass. I felt better. I had met Jesus in the homeless.
At the end of mass I asked about shelters and said what the first man said – that there was no shelter. I was told that was wrong – that there were shelters open each night around the city, often based in churches (hence our one on Fridays). There wasn’t a list of them in our church however, so I couldn’t go back out and tell the man as no-one knew who was responsible for Sundays. I was told that the homeless charities would have gone around and told people. I realised that I had given away a substantial amount of money I couldn’t afford and which our family needed, to a man who, it seemed, may well have told me a lie. I felt stupid. If I was going to give that amount I should at least have given it directly to a homeless charity. I was told about a person known to the church who had got pneumonia from sleeping rough and had been taken into hospital, but still, on being discharged, refuses to go to a shelter and insists on sleeping on the street. She has alcohol problems.
I looked around our church, seeing the food bank bin standing in front of the mural, and felt hopeless. Our country was in an awful mess and so many people needed help and I had not directed my money in the most efficient way.
I cried all the way back to the car. It was all so awful. My grand gestures meant nothing. I was ridiculous to think I could help like that. I was sorry I had thrown away our money. I had just been self indulgent.
The men were no longer in the doorways, at least. But I didn’t know where they were.
My family were lovely. My teenage girls hugged me. My husband told me about how when he had helped on a soup run in London, that many of the men he met with had had mental health problems and could not cope with any sort of organisation – that they weren’t out to defraud anyone – just not able to cope.
This story does not have a clear ending or moral. It is not a fairy tale. I may have done the wrong thing. Even if it was right I probably won’t do it again. I can’t afford to do it again. But I think, on balance, that last night, just for myself, I am glad I ‘spent’ that money. I find I don’t care if that first man lied. It was still too cold to be out. It was too cold to walk past two fellow human beings sleeping rough, as I so often do, and not be brutalised myself. I hope they both had a warm few hours at least – maybe in a warm pub but preferably in a shelter or B & B with a bed each – and got out of that freezing fog. Most of all I am glad I talked to each of them and told them that they should be warm. That it wasn’t right that they should be out in the cold like that. That they deserved to get shelter and be warm like me. I hope they believe me.
I think I will set up a direct debit to a homeless shelter. I think I will try to find out a list of the shelters in my city and the days they are opened, and ask my priest if I can put it on the back of the church. I am not sure if I can cope with being a regular volunteer. I know I can’t solve this. And I know that if I keep crying and giving money every time I see someone in a doorway that won’t help anyone and our family will have nothing to live on.
But I think, as a community, we CAN make things better. Even if we are not a front line worker we can protest cuts to vital services which help at early stages so that fewer people end up on freezing streets. We can talk about it so that it becomes an issue.
If mental health and alcohol problems contribute to homelessness, why are we cutting budgets to metal health services? Even if we are not directly affected, we should make it known that this is intolerable. Maybe those of us who can write, can help campaigning groups, can write to our MPs about cuts to mental health services. Show that we care. Let’s write to newspapers, call in to radio stations, talk about it at work.
If chaotic home lives and abuse contribute to mental health problems and homelessness, why are social services being cut? Why is the work my husband does, working with emotionally and behaviourally disturbed children, so underfunded? Why did the local pupil referral unit he worked in have to close because of funding problems, when it was doing such great work helping excluded children get back into mainstream education and was so supported by the police and social workers?
If the sheer cost of homes contribute to homelessness , let’s support campaigning groups like Shelter.
If the stress of Zero hours work or short contracts contributes to mental breakdown and homelessness- let’s change things. Let’s insist people have fair working conditions and pay so that they can plan and budget and not despair.
Lets also support those on the front line – the emergency services, the priests, the social workers, the psychiatrists and GPs, the teachers and teaching assistants, who have to deal with suffering people every day and try not to go under.
As a writer of children’s books, what can I do? I am not my husband, who is so calm and patient and grounded and works with children who need him, but who can be extremely difficult and challenging. But I can work with publishers to create books, often with wonderful illustrators. Hopefully these books will entertain and cheer. Hopefully they will encourage children to love reading and read other books by other people, and maybe encourage them into education and give them power as literate people. Most of all, I hope my books help children understand about love. I hope my books help children realise that they are valuable – that they have a right to warmth and shelter and love and happiness – and that this applies to everyone – not just them.
I have recently come across a wonderful charity called Family Links – I leave you with a link to their website and a wonderful video so that you can feel encouraged – people can make a difference at every stage and we don’t have to despair. We don’t have to be brutalised.