(This is the story I shall tell tonight at our ecumenical service remembering all Homeless people.)
I want to tell you a story. A true story. I used to work for The Rock Trust in Edinburgh who work with young homeless people. This is a story of one person who was homeless, not a young person, but a person whose story I thought you might be able to relate to. It is the story of Rita.
Rita is a single parent of two children. She never had much money and didn’t want to go to DHSS for handouts. She wanted to work. So she did lots of different jobs while her children were growing up. She was a barmaid, she did some temping, she sold Avon and Tupperware and Waterless cooking pans. But she always struggled to make ends meet. She got no help from her ex-husband who had mental health problems.
Rita was quite artistic and when her brother-in-law asked her to come and work for him doing some signwriting, she quickly agreed. Being in the family, he would be understanding about time off when kids are sick or on holiday. For a couple of years she worked in his shop-fitting company doing all the signs for the shops. It wasn’t exactly what she’d planned for herself when she left school, but beggars can’t be choosers. She learned to use a special computer which cut out self-adhesive letters to stick on windows and vehicles. Business did quite well. Well, that’s what she thought. But then, suddenly, the business went bust and Rita was made redundant. Her side of the business was doing really well but the shopfitting side was not making money and had to close.
Rita decided to start up on her own. She put together a business plan and went to the bank to borrow money. She leased the expensive computer and other equipment and carried on working hard. Harder than ever. She did signs for Jenners and for Arnold Clark and Standard Life and lots of small businesses. She worked seven days a week, doing the accounts and making the signs and fitting them. It wasn’t easy for Rita but she figured the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. She wasn’t making much money – just enough to live on in the early days – but she had a wee office that her boys could come to after school and not be latch-key kids.
But then Rita got religion! She had never been to church before but she just had a feeling that there was more to life than this. She joined her local church and quickly became very involved. She was soon on the coffee rota, then reading, then serving at the altar, and taking the youth group. The more she learned, the more she wanted to learn. She did a course for adults called Deepening Discipleship and still she wanted to learn more. But the more she learned, the more dissatisfied she became with her life. Because her life was made up of days spent thinking about money. From the minute she opened her eyes in the morning, to the moment she fell asleep, she worried about money. Would she get paid for that job to get the materials she needed for the next job? And if you’ve ever been self-employed, you’ll know how hard it is. Not that she was frightened of hard work, but it was just so money oriented. So she decided to give up her business.
Rita’s children were older then – one was away from home and the other was just about to do their Standard Grades. And she told one of her customers, Jane, who had become a friend what she was thinking. Jane offered to buy her out. She knew it was a good going business and she had some contacts too which would bring in more business. It seemed like an answer to a prayer. But Jane couldn’t afford to hand over a large sum of money and offered to pay Rita over three years which seemed like a good solution. Rita would get a monthly amount which would be enough to live on until she found another job.
So Rita handed over the keys and all the equipment and stepped out into the unknown. She didn’t know what she was going to do, but she did know that God was surely calling her to do something ‘worthwhile’ with her life. Something that wasn’t all about getting money. Something that was serving God. So she did some voluntary work for a charity while she looked around for a job. And within a few months the charity asked if she’d like to work for them full time. It wasn’t much money but it did seem to be the answer to her dreams. She was actually doing some good with her life.
But just as things were looking up for Rita, something happened which would change her life. Jane stopped making the payments. First there were excuses that the business wasn’t going well, or Jane was ill. And then Jane stopped answering the phone. From the thousands of pounds that Jane was owe her, Rita had only got a couple of hundred. And Jane disappeared.
Of course, Rita went to a lawyer and over the next year she tried to track down Jane to get her money. The job with the charity gave her just enough to live on, but the extra was needed to pay off the big bank loan she had taken out to start the business. But Jane was nowhere to be found and rumours were that she had gone to live abroad, leaving a pile of debts behind her. Debts that Rita was now liable for because of course they hadn’t done the sale of the business between lawyers – it was all done with a handshake and trust.
After a year, Rita got a letter from the bank to say that she was to leave her house within seven days. They had foreclosed on the loan and as the house was the collateral it was being seized. Seven days to find a new place, to box up all your belongings, to tell your friends (not to mention the gas and electricity and phone people) where you were moving. Rita was so ashamed. So hurt, so let down, so angry. The flat was all she had, the only security she had managed to hold onto over all those years of working hard for her kids. And it was to be taken away from her within seven days. Was this really what God had wanted from her?
The Housing Department weren’t much help. They didn’t have any flats for rent and it looked like it would have to be B&B accommodation. But they did say that they would take all her furniture and belongings and put them in storage until she had a permanent place. It was a dreadful week for Rita. Phoning the utility services to tell them she was moving but didn’t know where. Going to work during the day, too ashamed to tell them what had happened, and packing in the evening. And on the last day the Housing Department came up with Emergency Accommodation in Niddrie, the less salubrious part of Edinburgh.
A flat in a block amidst wasteland and burned out empty blocks. A flat miles from a bus stop where junkies plied their trade and prostitutes walked the empty roads and youngsters drank Buckfast and spat.
Rita was told the only thing they were allowed to take were some clothes. No TV, no Radio, no phone, no visitors. The flat was furnished with everything they would need. The rest was to go in storage. They would have one key and the warden could enter the flat at any time of the day or night to check it was not being trashed. Rita had no time to tell friends where she was living – no mobile phones back in 1995.
Rita says that on that first night when all she could hear were police sirens amid the silence, she really didn’t know how to pray to God. Her child wasn’t speaking to her and had gone off to their room in a huff, frightened but not admitting it. Was this really God’s plan for her? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
She was homeless. She who had worked all her life. She who went to a ‘good’ school. She who went to church and helped others. She wasn’t a drunk or an alcoholic or a lazy good-for-nothing. She didn’t have mental health problems or any disabilities. But there she was – homeless all the same. It really can happen to anyone.
To the person who sits next to you in church, praying fervently. To the person who works beside you. To the well dressed woman on the bus sitting beside you. To the person who turns up on parent’s night and tries to explain why their children are not doing so well this term. To the person who you thought was your friend but who’s going to visit Niddrie and leave their nice new car parked in that wasteland?
Rita’s story goes on but you don’t need to hear the rest. I really just wanted to tell you Rita’s story so that you could see that homelessness could happen to anyone. To you or to me. And it did happen to me, because in case you haven’t guessed – Rita is really me. We did eventually get a flat in a horrible scheme in the south of Edinburgh. I carried on doing my studies at New College and was accepted to do the BD. I worked part time with The Rock Trust while I was studying and I was accepted to train for the priesthood.
Was it all God’s plan? Who knows? I don’t think God deliberately makes people homeless but I do know now that God was with me through it all. And God was in the woman in the Housing Department who found me the flat and didn’t put us into B&B. And God was in the Warden of the Emergency Accommodation who turned a blind eye when friends came to call. And God was in the most beautiful sky-scape on the first night in our new flat high up in Gilmerton when pink ribbons wound their way across the sky from the Pentlands to Arthur’s Seat. God was in the mess and in the people we met and on the day I graduated and was then ordained. God was in it all.