Homelessness

Some of you may be disappointed to learn that you are not going to get a sermon this morning.  Those of you who know me will be mightily relieved about this.  What I hope to do instead is to describe and to begin to bring to life two local projects with which this community is closely involved.  Both  focus on people who are ‘dwelling in booths’ and are ‘strangers in a foreign land’, people who are homeless and without support.  And you do not have to be born abroad to become a ‘stranger’ , once the misfortune of homelessness hits, you become marginalised and vulnerable and a stranger within your own land. The first project is Faith in Action and the second is the Merton Winter Night Shelter.  But first let me give you a little background:

Homelessness is not just rough sleeping.   It can also include those who are, unwillingly but often gratefully, staying with friends and family, sofa surfing, or living in cars.  A truly moveable shelter. Some of these may be putting themselves at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation but choose keep an unsuitable roof over their heads rather than to risk becoming street homeless.

People who become homeless all, of course,  have their unique histories.  This will often include bereavement, relationship breakdown, loss of job, mental health problems or alcohol and drugs dependency.  This is often further complicated by being estranged from the family, being brought up in care,  time in the armed forces or prison.

Back to the two Projects:

1)FIA

Faith in Action was set up 10 years ago when a number of faith groups in Merton decided to work together to try to help homeless people in the local area.

I am a relatively new volunteer to this project (18 months) and there are several synagogue members with far longer experience there than mine.  However, I can tell you what happens on the two days that the project operates in Kingston Rd, Merton.  Doors open at 9.30 and people who use the service gradually arrive.  Breakfast is available, showers happen throughout the day and there are two washing machines going full pelt to get people’s washing done.  Tea and coffee are ongoing throughout the day.  A wonderful hot two course meal is prepared for between 60 – 85 people.  How the catering teams manage to prepare for what is an unknown number and to offer such a variety of meals never fails to amaze me.  And no matter at what time someone arrives, even if the meal has been served, some warm and comforting food will be found for the newcomer.  Staff and volunteers will provide information about housing issues, health issues and financial issues, helping people refer themselves to the most appropriate agency.  Or just to talk.  Sometimes it is necessary to talk for several weeks until people feel safe enough to tell their story and to say what they would like to happen.  Lots is done to try to help people move on to more secure accommodation and work, if possible.  One of the most recent innovations is that a member of staff from Job Centre Plus comes each week and will help people check their benefit entitlements.  She is able to give early alerts about job opportunities.  Several of the volunteers are Polish speakers, they are much in demand as a significant proportion of the people who use the service are Polish.  Referrals are made to local Housing Associations, and FIA has been successful in seeing a proportion of people who use the service being rehoused into homes they can call their own.  A stable base from which to restart life. People can use the lap tops available at FIA to enhance their skills and qualifications.  A gentleman who initially used the NS has successfully achieved catering qualifications to increased his chances of employability.

2) MWNS

I like to think of MWNS as a ‘sister’ project to FIA.  Some of the same people, both volunteers and users of the service, cross the borders of both projects.  Both are interfaith, but they are managed separately.  MWNS is coordinated by Merton YMCA.  The project follows the same format that operates across most London Boroughs and in other areas nationally.  What happens is that a number of faith based organisations come together and each offers to host the night shelter for one evening/night/morning each week.  And this is where the shul came in.  Some 4 years ago Council took the brave decision to become involved in the pilot project (and it was a brave decision – the ‘guests’ are unknown to us, and their needs are complex).  Since then, I am pleased to be able to say, the scheme has grown in strength and reach.  The original 7 faith venues (one for every day of the week) has grown to 14, which means the project can operate for twice as long as it originally did and now runs from Dec – Mar.  The number of guests has to be limited to the size of the smallest venue and operates in Merton by taking in 12 (or 13 in an emergency) guests.  There is always a waiting list of people who are very keen to use the service.  This will be the 4th year that the shul has hosted Monday evenings to Tuesday mornings.

Guests are assessed by the central management team as being appropriate for the scheme.  It has to be recognised that the project is operated by volunteers; thus it is not suitable for anyone whose needs are very extreme or chaotic.  Guests sign an agreement about  how they will behave whilst they are with the NS and we have found them to be respectful.  This is not to say that there hasn’t been the odd challenge.

This last year was particularly satisfying as the Project Worker appointed to coordinate across all 14 venues was very active in facilitating referral to housing agencies, and other specialist projects.   This enabled a greater number of people to at least experience the safety from the streets and the breathing space to think that the night shelter allows. We fear that the recent changes to benefits mean that this will be more difficult to achieve this year.

The scheme at shul is very well supported.  We are lucky with our premises, the support of the office and caretaking staff here, Council’s backing has already been mentioned, and individuals come forward to offer help in such a range of imaginative ways:  volunteering directly to work on the shifts, providing soup and other delectable goodies, donating toiletries and clothing, sponsoring meals and other financial support – and we have a seamstress! She sits under a lamp, quietly sewing back buttons, mending seams and instantly the small hall becomes a warmer, more homely place.  The evening shift arrives at 5.30 to set up the bedding, ensure that tea and coffee are available, the table laid and guests welcomed.  The catering team arrives a little  later to work their magic.  An overnight team comes in to ensure that the environment is safe and secure  during the night and the early morning larks arrive at 6.00 am to relieve the overnighters, to gently rouse the sleepers and give them a hearty breakfast.  Additional volunteers arrive to help the tidy-up operation and ensure that shul is left ready for its daily activities.

The people we have seen have always been a mixture of ethnicities, both men and women, UK born and bred, Eastern European and Indian and Sri Lankan.  They have all been ‘strangers in a foreign land’, even those that are UK citizens.  The alienation that they experience puts them apart from and outside mainstream society.

What I want to do now: is just to try to bring one or two of the people who use these services alive for you.  I have got their permission to tell their stories and I have changed their names:

Aban’s story.  I want to tell you his story first, because although it has tragic components, its telling began with a smile for both of us and has given us a special link. It also has very contemporary resonances which must be making  recent news especially painful for him.  It began when,  during one of my first volunteering sessions, I sat down beside a very gentle looking gentleman who was eating his vegetarian lunch. I asked him whether he always chose the vegetarian option.  He said yes, and I asked, whether this was for a particular reason.  He explained that if he had meat, it had to be prepared in a special way.  I asked if he was Muslim and he replied yes.  I then told him that I also should be eating meat prepared a special way (this was while I was enjoying my volunteers’ portion of strictly non-kosher chicken) as I was Jewish.  To my surprise Aban told me that his grandmother had been Jewish and that several of his relatives had emigrated to Israel during the 1950s.  I asked whether this grandmother was his mother’s mother or his father’s.  He told me that she had been his maternal grandmother.  To his surprise, I said ‘well, I have got news for you  ………. You are Jewish too!’  Aban is Kurdish in origin and the area he was living in was shelled by Sadam Hussein.  He had a wife and young son and had to flee to the mountains.  Aban lost a baby son whilst fleeing through the mountains in Iraq.  The terrible events that led to both his relatives emigrating and later to him fleeing with his family have meant that contact with his wider family was disrupted.  His daughter was born here.  He says that he UK is is home.  But he would dearly love to trace his family in Israel.  And then he says that we should go together to visit!  If there is a genealogist in the house.

Rustam is 30 years old.  He comes from India and has been in the UK for 10 years.  He has a degree in Engineering and came to the UK to study for an MBA.  Whilst studying he worked part time in a petrol station.  By his own account he comes from a very good, supportive and prosperous family, who farm both poultry and fruit and vegetables on a large scale.  He has two older sisters and five nephews and nieces.  Rustam’s problems stemmed from being introduced to, and subsequently hooked on, gambling. Over a period of time he lost large amounts of money and eventually his accommodation, becoming homeless.  He has used both FIA and the NS, and whilst at the NS took a catering job to try to begin to redeem both some of the financial costs and his self esteem.  Unfortunately, we see a proportion of jobs that are offered to homeless people which are exploitative.  Rustam was not paid properly (others at the Night Shelter have travelled across London for car washing jobs, and have not been paid at all).  Rustam’s family, who do not know the full extent of his problems, have remained supportive, sending him large sums of money, which he knows he has used unwisely.  He is now waiting for his passport and plans to return to India.  He is confident of a welcome there and that he will gain employment, either within the family firm or using his engineering qualification.  Despite the difficulty time he has had in the UK, he accepts responsibility for these difficulties and feels great shame.  He has however, despite all this, developed a great love for England, and would like to return in future for visits on a new footing.  How wonderful it would be to see him under these circumstances!

Conclusions

Strengths of the schemes:

  • Interfaith, both volunteers and people who use the services. We have worked alongside many flavours of Christianity, Quakers, Muslims, Hindus
  • Practical help that helps the people who are using the service to have the time, space and encouragement to move on
  • Volunteers have gained much from being part of the team offering this service. A member of our community recently described it as ‘a community within a community’.

And this last point makes me consider why it is that we are in the position of being able to offer the services, what is it that we have that the people who use the service don’t have?  And I think a stable community is the answer, (and this is not to say that there is not a community spirit amongst the people we see, they are often generous to one another, care for one another and look out for one another), but their community, unlike ours, is not in a position to put down roots and become stable.  And this is what the majority of the people we see wish for.

Thank you.