My sincere apologies for a long absence from blogging which has been due to busyness, the disease of the age. In the early part of 2019 I was invited to take part in a pilot night shelter project in my home borough and suddenly I found myself Sunday venue coordinator for a 15 bed men's shelter. The 10 week pilot was the brainchild of Housing Justice and an initiative of the local Multi Faith Forum, made possible by the generosity and commitment of many volunteers. The logistics of running the Sunday shelter absorbed my energies at weekends and on top of my day job (I don't work Mondays) at The Manna, left me little time for reflection, the prerequisite for any worthwhile writing.
As we approached the end of the ten week pilot, we were all as a team experiencing satisfaction for what had been achieved, relief at getting back our weekends soon, and an ache in our hearts for those who were not yet being resettled. But whatever hopes we shared of somehow keeping the shelter running for those yet to be housed, it was clear that extending it would be unrealistic, unworkable and unwise. It was time to stop, rest and reflect. This blog article is the fruit of my reflection, four Sundays after our last shelter night on 7th April and these are a few things I have been ruminating on since the pilot closed.
Ideology or Collaboration: Few in the homelessness sector do not hold strong opinions on how services should operate and ideologies can be contentious to say the least. For my part, I would really prefer not to ask people, already displaced by the experience of homelessness, to move from venue to venue seven nights a week to get a warm safe bed. One venue with seven or fourteen churches/faith groups managing it on a weekly or fortnightly rota would be preferable. But this is an ideal, not an article of faith and in fact my guiding principle would be that it is better to ‘go and do something’ in the immortal words of William Booth, than wait for the perfect scenario.
The shelter pilot was in fact a collaboration of different Christian denominations covering four nights and two Muslim groups hosting three nights. Our guests were mostly from Christian and Muslim backgrounds as well as a Rastafarian and a Tamil Hindu. To add to such diversity, on St Patrick's Day our first and only Irish guest arrived, a man of great humour and loquacity; it was a gem of providence to discuss Irish poetry, ancestry and culture with this well read gentleman. But the most striking memory was of the faces of shelter guests visible through the glass entrance door, in the dark, hovering to come in from the cold; some looked like they were crossing the finishing line of a race. I realised at that point that it wouldn't have mattered if we were in the same venue every night, for shelters by their nature close in the morning and open in the evening. What was most important for our guests was the atmosphere of a relaxed welcome and the sight of a camp bed ready for them. Over half of our guys sank onto their beds for an hour or more before they could face any food or conversation. Some stayed there for the night; homelessness is exhausting.
Compassion or Clarity
Yes, we did cherish the hope of an extension to the shelter to give time for places to be secured for a few guests who had joined the shelter later in the weeks. Venue coordinators and core volunteers in our teams talked about it but the truth was that we were all physically tired by the end of the pilot and the last few weeks our volunteer teams were stretched and some were threadbare. An extension was unsustainable for these reasons and many more. Clear thinking had to overrule it and it did.
As I reflect on how some of us felt in the last two weeks of the pilot, and the realisation that endings were approaching, it was helpful to see compassion as an energiser, a renewable fuel so to speak, but not the vehicle; the motivating force but not the solution. This pilot was well managed, time limited and achievable, not led by compassion but by good project management practice. Every guest received considerable moral support, coaching, advocacy and and most guests made significant progress on their journey back into accommodation.
Hospitality or Housing
The established circuit shelter model employs hospitality as a defining motif and it was a perfect fit for faith groups shaped by the sacred values of welcome, dignity and support to people in need. As an operational paradigm it lightened a heavy situation with the simplicity of friendliness and good food. The evening meal, board games and card games, laughter and even angst of guests and volunteers, created a warmth and sense of safety that was real. The clear demarcation between volunteer roles as a hospitality team, and the casework of the central Coordinator and partners was both wise and liberating. Guests did not see venue volunteers as keyworkers and this preempted the projection of expectations and frustrations about resettlement at the shelter. We just got down to the business of listening, laughing and lugging equipment.
On reflection I do not think however that many of us would have been comfortable with a shelter which could only provide respite. I can say hand on heart that every volunteer on my team was anguished to a greater or lesser extent by the reality of people, some in pretty bad shape, ending up back on the street. I was continually challenged by the freshness of reactions from volunteers who didn’t work in the sector professionally and had not developed pragmatic resilience (essential in frontline work). It would have been easy to dismiss them as naive but that would have been very wrong. Their horror at the reality of rough sleeping demanded answers because they had invested time, emotion and even money and they wanted to see solutions; they were not volunteering to get the feel good for doing good. As a wit once said ‘Blessed are those who do not get used to it’.
Another more embracing beatitude for the pilot should be; ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be filled’ and this shelter pilot became an effective platform for advocacy and resettlement, through the efforts of the MFF Coordinator and Housing Justice’s support. They galvanised a joined up response from agencies that included solid casework for the many, not the few. It was an amazing push forward and again confirmed the rightness of our collaboration.
Drawing all these strands together, I ask myself the question; would it have been worthwhile if the shelter was for respite only? Would my ideals stop me from building a team again and pouring in time and energy to a respite shelter? But it was my actual involvement in the pilot that enables me to answer this question. Over the weeks and weather changes, I observed the way guests were able to use the shelter, and the struggles they were all going through emotionally, physically and socially during that ten week period.
Hospitality as a practice enabled us to encounter the stranger in great need (Matthew 25:31-46), and in that contact understand them. What they, our guests, all wanted was a home, a hope and a future. Week after week, as some came cheerful and full of hope and others came downcast and subdued, we took a position to stand with everyone and to want for them what they wanted for themselves. We hungered and thirsted for justice with shelter guests, to see doors open for people whose voice could not effect the change they needed. If respite was all we could have done, then it would have been worth doing and it would have been vital that it was done. Where respite and resettlement were both possible but we had settled on respite, we would have achieved our goals, not the goals of homeless guests, putting our agendas at the centre.
So ten weeks came and went, camp beds went here and there courtesy of Denton who drove the Harlesden Methodist van around the borough. Churches and mosques conferred, passed the baton morning after morning and shared little snippets of advice about this or that issue. Recipes were suggested, bedding was counted, bags were lost and found and then mislaid again. Adventists chatted with Muslims and Pentecostals, Baptists shared volunteers with Salvationists and we all got on with the work. We had accepted the incomplete nature of our endeavours but by joining our efforts and placing the possible and useful over preferences and deeply held ideas, something beautiful was achieved for all; guests, volunteer teams and our faith communities.
A month has passed since the last Monday morning when we woke up our guests with the smell of coffee and the strains of Cat Stevens Morning has broken followed by Eddy Grant's Gimme hope Jo'Anna. It was a time well spent indeed, and together, we did more than make people welcome however commendable that would have been; we were part of an initiative that broke through to obtain joint working and results for our guests. The shelter pilot was figuratively the widow seeking bread at midnight from the unjust judge; the ASK, SEEK, KNOCK of Matthew 7:7. And it was hard work for all in different ways, with the negotiations and advocacy of our Coordinator and Housing Justice crucial and very very time consuming. All the faith groups involved have much respect for them and we learned a lot, at least I certainly did. For volunteers, the salary we drew was a direct transfer into our hearts and minds; the joy of knowing lives were being lifted up from the streets and we had played our part. For our churches and mosques, it has surely expanded our confidence and capacity to engage politically and spiritually with others and do it well. It was a crash course in collaboration, and an act of solidarity with excluded people in our community. And it is only a beginning.
Tears, Tribunals and the Truth
These last few weeks at The Manna have been eventful to say the least, with sadness in the mix, along with laughter and good news for a number of individuals. On August 8th, The Manna Singers sang farewell to our highly energetic and popular co-ordinator Rachel who is taking a well earned rest before embarking on her next career adventure. We also said a final farewell to a long standing client and the Requiem Mass in North London proved to be a poignant moment for all who attended as his Irish family lovingly laid him to rest.
In the middle of all of this, we continue to welcome strangers who have come along to grace us with their presence. One 62 year old woman arrived at our doors homeless and in a daze just over three months ago. This week she moves into her new sheltered housing flat, the first place she can call her own home in thirty years. Sally, as I will call her, has proved to be a down to earth, straight talking, upbeat woman with the gift of encouraging others and seeing every glass half full, not half empty. At a time when we are one staff member down and still adjusting to change, the person who comes in our midst so well adjusted, practical, and cheerful, surely is a godsend. She is now a familiar face, volunteering with us and we only wish we had met her sooner for our mutual benefit.
We continue to chip away relentlessly at the bizarre and unjust decisions dealt by the Dept of Work and Pensions on welfare claimants and we have played our part three times in the last month in overturning decisions at Her Majesty's Tribunal Service. We are outfoxing them at Fox Court, however 'them' is not the tribunal members but the Dept of Work and Pensions. HMCTS puts the jewel back in the crown of British Justice because judges, chairs, and doctors at Fox Court, Holborn, are typically marked by clear thinking, careful questioning and compassionate insight for the hardships facing our clients.
Thus amidst the difficult moments, the goodbyes which arrive too soon, and the tears that accompany them, it was the sight of one young man in the waiting room of the Tribunal Service, which deeply affected me in these last few weeks. 'Sam' as I will call him, suffers extreme anxiety and social phobia, but despite the supporting evidence of his psychologist, his disability payment was withdrawn last year, leaving his mum to struggle to support him. He had just turned 17, and despite a request for a review, he had to wait one year for justice to be done. During that time he was consumed with a sense of hopelessness about his life, and how he would cope with a tribunal.
When the decision letter was issued to Sam by the court administrator, he handed it straight to his mother who then gave it to me. They were unsure of the legal jargon in the letter so despite the positive attitude from the tribunal board, they still doubted the evidence of their eyes that the appeal was allowed. As I deciphered the letter declaring his victory, Sam put his head forward, his hood falling over his face, and he began to make this low moaning sound as his shoulders heaved up and down in spasms. This went on for several minutes until the Tribunal called us back in because they had looked again at their decision, identified an error in the judgement, and decided to increase the award further! Sam's catharsis revealed the depth of anguish and suffering that the stress of the legal process had done to him. As I look at mother and son in their combined daze of relief, I wept too.
August at the Manna has reflected the present weather in its intensity, turbulence and clouds. Many people continue to be supported and their lives strengthened by their contact with The Manna but the truth of the matter is that the anguish of Sam and all the other victims of merciless bureaucracies, and divisive agendas, is totally unnecessary, wasteful and dangerous to health. We cannot be satisfied as professionals that we are developing higher levels of expertise in welfare advocacy when the cost of it is human misery of our clients. We exist for people in crisis and social exclusion: they do not exist for us. Policy change alone will stop such needless human suffering and promote the common good. Our Manna folk need foundational justice, not eleventh hour turnarounds. The TRUTH is that there is a war being waged against sick, disabled and people of marginal status by our bureaucracies. Its a War on the Poor and its called AUSTERITY.