Homeless in Falkirk? Forget it.

We clergy who live over the shop (ie next door to the church) are used to callers. These can vary from photocopier salesmen (yes, all men) to those men (yes, all men) who have some tarmac ‘left over’ from a job down the road that they could use to pave my carpark at a very reasonable rate to those who need something. The latter are in the majority. The ‘something’ they need can vary too. Usually it is money.

begging-cup1Each week I probably have about 5-10 callers who need money. Money for electricity cards, for food, for baby food, for train fares because a close relative has died far, far away, for phone cards for that urgent phone call, for all manner of things. All of them look down on their luck and some are more sober than others. Some are so stoned they can hardly stand or speak. All of their stories begin with “This is the God’s honest truth” and often it isn’t.

It is a tricky situation. They have come to me because they believe that as a representative of the church, I will not say no. That as a representative of the church, my job is to help those less fortunate than myself. But usually I suspect that the money I might give will be spent in the local off-licence or junkie. Perhaps you think that this is okay. That it is their choice and that the good Samaritan gives without question. I don’t believe I’m a very good Samaritan. And I don’t often have any money anyway.

The stories they tell are sometimes long and elaborate. They are often heartbreaking. Remember I used to work with homeless people and I’ve heard some of those stories before. Some, I know, are tall tales. Tales spun out of desperation for the alleviation of their addiction. Tales which I often admire for their creativeness. Sometimes they tell me they have a faith or are born again and that this should count for extra consideration. Some want me to let them in so they can tell their story in peace.

My Vestry are concerned for my safety. Not long after I came here a man tried to kick my front door in because I wouldn’t give him money. I now have locks and chains and a sign on the door which says I don’t give out money. I feel bad about that sign in my door but I know it is for my own safety. I do give out food and drinks. I make cups of tea and fill bags with food which might fill a gap. I refer folk to the Salvation Army up the road who provide hot meals, clothes and washing facilities, and give out food parcels when the Foodbank is closed, but often people come to my door when the Sally Army are closed or at the weekend. And often they tell me its not food they want, its cash. I wonder what other clergy do?

Early on Sunday evening a man came to my door called David. He wanted me to pray for him. Now that I can do. But first he wanted to tell me his story. He wanted us to go somewhere, perhaps the church, where he could tell me what he wanted me to pray for. David is from Lithuania and his English wasn’t very good. He was tall and looked quite clean, with a small backpack and an umbrella. There was no smell of drink and no signs of drug abuse. I asked him to tell his story on the doorstep which didn’t please him but he reluctantly agreed. He’d come over for work which was promised but didn’t materialise. He was sleeping rough in the park when he was beaten up and had spent four days in hospital. (He showed me his hospital wristband, his bruises, his loose teeth.) I think he wanted money for a phone card but I truly didn’t have any money in my purse. He wanted food and coffee and I gave him some and I prayed with him. On the doorstep. The hospital had given him clean clothes and the backpack but no socks and he wanted some but mine were too small. “No man?” he asked incredulously. He wanted me to write down the name of the hospital because he was to go back the next morning at 9am for a follow-up appointment about his ribs, I think. Translation was not easy. (The hospital is over 4 miles away.)

In my heart I knew I should have done more for David. But where could I take him? There is nowhere in Falkirk which does emergency accommodation. And would I be brave enough to get in my car with a 6′ man and drive anywhere? I ended up suggesting the Roman Catholic church because I know they have a big Presbytery and there are plenty men around. But I should have taken him myself. I was too scared.

Yesterday I phoned the local housing department and asked what I could have done. They said he wouldn’t get a house anyway unless he comes from Falkirk or unless he could pay. “No point in giving a house if they can’t pay for gas and electricity,” they said. There are no hostels in Falkirk, no places where someone can sleep out of the cold and rain. Their advice to me was to phone the Lithuanian Embassy in London. “Nothing we can do if he’s come here with no return ticket.”

So my question is: what do you do? If you don’t live in a big city with hostels and temporary accommodation, where do you refer people to? Because nine times out of ten, they come in the evening or at weekends out of office hours. I sometimes suggest the Police but I’ve never had anyone take my up on that suggestion once. They may say they’ve been there already, but often I suspect it is the last place they’d go. In retrospect perhaps I should have phoned the police about David.

He’s still in my mind and my prayers. What would you have done?

feet poor

Homelessness rises again

I read today in the Church Times that homelessness has increased in England by 25% over the past 3 years. (At the same time the money put into homelessness by the government has decreased by about 29%).  We, in Christ Church, like many other churches in Falkirk, support our local homeless project by providing items for starter packs to help those about to move into their new home. But those are the lucky ones. Those are the ones who have probably been on waiting lists for many years, regularly sitting for hours in housing departments telling their story over and over again to amass the points necessary to be given a flat in probably the worst part of town. The statistics tell us that the majority are single men, followed by single women. The tabloids would have us believe that most people on the waiting list are young women who get pregnant merely to get a house. In fact, they are just 17% of the total and believe me, very few got pregnant merely to get a grotty flat.

When I worked for the Rock Trust I used to go round groups talking about our work. I always asked people who they thought of when they heard the word ‘homeless’. For the majority, it would be the drunk tramp – the visible side of homelessness. The person who begs in doorways and sleeps in the streets of our cities. But there are so many more that are hidden from view: the newly divorced; the ex-service people who have lost their tied housing; the abused; the mentally ill who should be getting ‘care in the community’ but who so often fall through the cracks; the many young and now middle-aged people who can’t afford a mortgage or the high rents and just don’t qualify for social housing; the bankrupt (another increasing number which often includes families with children); the asylum seeker; and the many young people who have been put out of their homes or have just got out of Care. For many of them it just isn’t their fault at all. After all, who would choose to be homeless?

Having been homeless myself, I know it is one of the most degrading and depressing situations one can find oneself. You lose all dignity having to beg for accommodation, willing to settle for anything that is offered even if it is in foul bed and breakfast houses. If you are offered emergency accommodation you lose your privacy as the warden can enter your house at any time. Many don’t allow visitors of any kind, tvs, music, and your belongings have to be put into store while you use the basic supplies that come with the flat. These flats are often given at very short notice so it is difficult to notify everyone of your new address and mail goes missing, bills get overlooked, appointments forgotten, and as you don’t know how long you will be there it is impossible to make any plans for the future. I now have a smart phone, a filofax, and a calendar on my computer and occasionally I can miss an appointment. Can you imagine what it is like for someone who has none of these things? “You didn’t turn up for your housing review appointment which we made 6 weeks ago, so you’ve been removed from the list.” That is the reality for many people.

I am now in a fortunate position that means I live in a largish house with spare rooms. If that wasn’t the case, both of my boys would have been homeless at some points in their lives. However there was a time when I lived in a one-bedroom flat with both my children and helped out a friend with two small boys for a year when she was made homeless. We adults slept in the lounge and four boys shared one bedroom. This is the reality for many people. My friend wasn’t classified as homeless then because she had a roof over her head. How crazy is that?

Of course there is private rented accommodation out there, but most require large deposits paid in advance. And they are much sought after. Imagine you had little money but had to make a host of phone calls and travel all over town to view flats. How would you manage? Many don’t accept people in receipt of benefits and the vast majority are furnished. What do you do then, with your own bits and pieces? Throw them out, store them in friends’ garages until such times as you can get your own unfurnished place? It just seems that everything is against you.

This is 2012. Yet I recently spoke to a local teacher who told me of a pupil who has no money, no decent clothes or shoes, who never gets to go on any school outings. How can this still be happening today? We send money off to our link churches and schools in Africa, yet there are still children in our own country who have nothing but the threadbare clothes on their backs. And then our governments spend how much money on new trams and the Olympic Games? And that’s why I can’t get enthusiastic about it all. I can’t wax lyrically over the sense of patriotism it has engendered, or the great advert it is for our nation, when there is still so much poverty and homelessness right next door to us. That’s not a great advert – not in my book anyway.

So I keep praying. I keep praying that the homeless will be safe. I keep praying for the agencies who help them (Christian and others). I keep praying that our government will see sense and put money where it is needed and not what will give us a higher profile. I keep praying.

 

 

 

Vagrants

I found this on my romp around the Blogs this morning and it made me smile – a lot. It has never happened to me (yet) but this is the stuff clergy nightmares are made of.

Homelessness Sunday – a true story

(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.

Thank God.

The Visitor

This morning, just after 8am, we had a visitor in church. His name was Gerry and he was an alcoholic.  Gerry had layers of clothing on, topped with a luminous green hoodie and the church was warm but Gerry was still cold. He drank clear liquid out of an old Coke bottle and wiped his eyes and nose frequently. He stood when the congregation stood and sat when they sat but didn’t join in any of the words. He listened carefully though. Some of it made him tearful.

After the service Gerry told me his story. His dad had recently died and Gerry had sobered up for four days then because you don’t bury anyone drunk. He hadn’t cried at the funeral but he cried now whenever he thought of him. He wore his dad’s silver ring with pride and showed me it often. Once there was a wife and children; once Gerry played for Rangers; once he wasn’t in this state. Cheap cider is to blame, he said. It is the worst and it makes you pee yourself. You lose control on cider and you fight. Do you have any trousers I could have?

We stood outside having a smoke while the kettle boiled. Gerry didn’t want to go into town because he knew he’d get into trouble there, get into a fight, get arrested. He wouldn’t stay in any of the hostels because he didn’t like the druggies. They’d stolen his ID so he’d need to get another birth certificate. Maybe I’ll go back to Glasgow, he said. There’s nowhere to get help here in Portobello – no food banks, no hostels, no clothing stores. Being homeless means it is difficult to get your money. Where would they send your giro? They once gave him a house in Easter Road but he stupidly invited all his drinking buddies up and he lost it. You’d think I’d learn. I just keep getting into fights. Its the cider. Demon drink.

Gerry is just out of Saughton Prison. He was sent there because he had a gun and a knife.  Do you have one on you now, Gerry? No, never again. That was stupid. Did you manage to sober up in prison? You’re joking!  In there you get homemade stuff – hooch. Its really bad for you – rots your guts. I do go to the meetings, you know AA, but then things get on top of me.

My dad left me £1000 but the cash machine at the Waverley ate my card. That’s why I’ve got no money. I’ll need to sort it out tomorrow. I’ll get money then. Did I tell you my dad died?  I’ve nobody left now. Completely on my own. My brother won’t speak to me and he’s in Kentucky.  My family won’t speak to me. How could you get to nearly sixty and have nobody left? My best friend died at 30. She used pure heroin – it was too much for her and she just died.  I’ve nobody left. Nobody. The tears flowed.

At breakfast Gerry told us his story again. He spoke about his family. I’m a Christian, he said. I liked that service. Look, I have a cross and he showed us an Ankh cross on his belt. Do you want me to pray for your dad? Yes, and I’ll stay for the next service if that’s okay. I’d like to hear that.  I buried him with my mum. The headstone was £2000 and it was £500 for the square flower pot with In Memory, but it doesn’t matter about the cost. I have artificial flowers in it. Then if I’m not there, the flowers will still be. How can you be sixty and have lost everyone?  Bloody cider.

Chez Hellish Hyvots

I don’t know if I’ve ever blogged about the time I was homeless, but yesterday brought some of it back to me so I thought I’d just share a little bit.

The whys and wherefores belong in the dim and distant past but it happened at a time when I was working for The Rock Trust (support and accommodation for young homeless people, ironically enough).  I was doing a part-time Access Course at New College dipping my toe into all things theological and loving it. The Bank gave us (me and Son #2) just seven days to get out of our house. That’s not a lot of time to find somewhere to live and pack up all your worldly goods – and books. Especially as you couldn’t tell anyone where you were going to be living in a week’s time because we didn’t know ourselves.

To cut a long story short, we were eventually offered Emergency Accommodation in a flat in Niddrie.  Better than B&B, we were told.  Niddrie, for those of you who don’t know Edinburgh, is one of the less salubrious areas – burnt out blocks of flats, marauding gangs, wasteland, junkies on every corner. We were only allowed to take our clothes and all the furniture would go into Council storage where we could have no access until a new council house was found.  Emergency Accommation is not so bad. A cleanish flat all furnished with wipe-clean furniture, cups and saucers too. Oh how I wished I’d taken a mug!  A safe in the wardrobe for our valuables and a warden who could come into the flat whenever she liked, and did, just to make sure we weren’t trashing the place. One key too, I remember, between us. No radio, no TV, no music, no visitors in case we disturbed the other residents.

As I stood there looking out the window on that first night, I remember wondering where God was in that place.  And as I turned away I heard a voice shouting “Ruth!” from outside.  “Oh no! A visitor! I’ll get thrown out and I’ve only just unpacked my knickers!”  I looked out of the window and there stood Ernie, the husband of the local Piskie priest Sheila. I ran down to tell him I couldn’t have visitors – and how had he found me anyway? Turns out the Edinburgh grapevine had done its magic and he had dispensation to visit.  “Sheila can’t come, she’s at a meeting, but she sent this…”  A bottle of Gordons and Tonic and a purple plant.  Now that’s what I call ministry. Towels and mugs followed.

After a few months we were offered our very own council home – a flat at Hyvots near Gilmerton. Another charming area.  We had a day to decide because the letter had gone to our old address and had taken time to find us.  I felt we had no choice so we agreed.  It was in a block with about 12 flats on each storey.  Metal shutters protected the windows. I think the previous tenant had been a Hearts supporter for most of the upstairs was decorated maroon… gloss. Yes, even on the walls. You know when you watch A Life of Grime and council workers go in to make a house habitable before it can be released. I don’t think they do that in Edinburgh.

Our furniture eventually arrived and it was good to be reunited with our own stuff.  As I stood looking out over the Edinburgh skyline waiting for the Electricity Board to come and connect us, the lights started to go on over the city.  Street by street lit up and twinkled a welcome.  The sky offered pink ribbons weaving back and forth fading to lilac and then indigo. God was there too.

You found out who your friends were. Who would risk parking their car below the flats where under-10s could strip a car in a matter of minutes?  I had some jumpy visitors!  Bonfires were a nightly occurrence as toddlers ran through the flames shrieking with laughter.  The drug dealer next door was raided a few times and always told the police that I could be trusted with his keys for the council to come back and repair the door.  Like Peter I would mutter, “I don’t really know him…”

That was then… And yesterday I was asked to visit one of my little flock who has just moved into the area. Not into the miserable blocks of flats but into a lovely semi-detached. The flats have now all been raised to the ground and the area redeveloped into lovely houses with gardens. Right on the spot where Chez Hellish Hyvots once stood.  There is a new Community Centre being built and the neighbours are friendly and offer help to one another.

You know, it felt really good.

We call upon the Sacred Three

to save, shield and surround

this house, this home,

this day, this night,

and every night.   (from Celtic Daily Prayer)