When the ostentatious glamour of the Lady-boys of Bangkok were in full swing dancing to the Village People, and the scantily clad, over-perfumed, Friday night revellers stumbled between restaurants and bars, with excessive indulgence, the invisible people of the City made their way to the Market Square for the most basic of needs – food, clothes, and human contact.
There are a lot of homeless people in Derby, and many organisations have been established to help them. Is there any need for another one? That question was not relevant to Caroline Dwyer, and Jane Murray, who just wanted to do something – it was clear to them that whatever was being done wasn’t enough, so they decided to get together, with family and friends and formed Street Safe just as winter 2014 was really beginning to bite.
Ken suffers with mental health issues – he has a panic disorder. He is a very gentle, and polite man. He was happy to talk, but most of his conversation seemed very confused. I sensed that he was completely “lost”, and that his days were now just a haze of anxiety. He sat down on the kerbside, next to the Street Safe team, quietly, eating his food, and remaining there for some time afterwards. It was safe, and he was with people he knew. The time came for him to leave and go somewhere, alone, with his fears.
Word of mouth, and social media, helped promote the idea very quickly and an increasing group of volunteers emerged to create the larger Street Safe team. Enough momentum had been gathered by Christmas to make sure that the people that they were helping felt something of the seasonal spirit, even down to handing out some homemade gifts made by one of the volunteers.
The ethos is simple and straightforward. It is about helping and making a difference to those that need their support. There are no rules, other than the basics of safety and courtesy, they don’t judge, they don’t ask questions, no vouchers are required, everything is free – but they are savvy. When they need to be, they are firm and fair, and they command respect, because those that are fed and clothed know that everything is done for their benefit, with a great sense of human kindness.
Tony was an abattoir worker, and snapped a tendon in his ring finger of his right hand. He couldn’t work, pending an operation, for which there was a long waiting list. Despite all efforts to keep him employed, the company had to release him as they could not insure him prior to his operation. His rent arrears increased. He was on job Seekers Allowance. The Job Centre tried to send him back to the abattoir for work; Tony knew this wouldn’t be successful. He was sanctioned for 6 weeks. An arrangement was agreed with the Magistrate. He was subsequently sanctioned again, fell further into arrears. He had to appear in front of the magistrates again, they gave him 1 hours notice to quit. The bailiffs arrived and removed all of his possessions.
He now lives on the street. He had obtained some camping equipment so he could cook himself meals. He is on prescription medication to make him sleep. All of his belongings, with drugs were found by the Council, and removed. He is back to owning very little again.
The Street Safe volunteers who go into the centre of Derby every other day, have earned their stripes in such a short space of time. They have withstood, the bitterly cold conditions of winter.
Integral to the network of volunteers are those who prepare all of the food.
This is no ordinary food – this is Street Safe food!
The meals that they prepare are tasty, wholesome, and traditional. A number of the guys I spoke to commented on the quality of the food “ it reminds me of the dinners I had at home, that my mum used to make us”. The thoughtful extras of cakes, chocolates, and the recent Easter bags, also turn a hot meal into a slightly more special occasion for those who are institutionally ignored.
Carl had a £300/week job working at Marks and Spencer’s Catering .He then made a wrong choice of partner, who he was sharing a flat with. She destroyed the flat following an argument, and smashed the TV on the floor causing damage to the rooms below. They had to leave, and Carl was left with a large repair bill. He had no place to live. Eventually he had to tell M&S. They said that he couldn’t work there preparing food if he was living on the streets. He sleeps in the doorways of St. Peter’s Street as he knows that if he gets beaten up, it will all be on camera. He begs money so he can sleep in a B&B. If he can stay for at least 3 nights then he can use the address formally. He has only managed 2 nights. The Police often tell him to move on, or arrest him.
What makes this group special, is not just the act of handing out food, clothes, sleeping bags, rucksacks etc – it is the fact that everything is done with an unconditional wish to help a fellow human being who is hungry, cold, struggling and vulnerable. Because of this, and because it is still small, those volunteers who don’t actually go on the streets, still feel a close connection with their diners – the caring passes through to them from the cook, and the appreciation is quickly returned.
I spoke to a number of the men whilst they were eating, and they all enjoyed the fact that everything was casual and relaxed. A few had had poor experiences of some of the churches, and one instance at Ozzy Road church was particularly memorable for them. One evening when they were there using it is a night shelter, and the kettles had been taken away to support the Soup kitchen, they wanted to go outside to get a coffee ( from the Street Safe team). They were told if they went outside they wouldn’t be allowed back in. There may be a perfectly good reason for this, but it niggled and annoyed them immensely ; nobody had explained the reasoning. From behind their angst, and frustration they told me “It’s almost as though they’ve forgotten what they’re here for – it all seems too competitive”. Some now, won’t even use the churches unless they really have to, they don’t like the rules, and the implicit religious messaging.
Gary takes me right to the top floor of the Assembly Rooms car park where many people sleep. It’s relatively safe there, out of the way, but he still gets regularly disturbed by shouting and abuse. He is angry because one day he met the Mayor, as a token homeless person. He made promises to him, which were never kept. He wants him sacked for that
Some of the men I spoke to were “shell-shocked” by chronic tiredness, alcohol, or drugs, exacerbated by deteriorating health, and a mental emptiness driven by a sense of abandonment by the system; I saw the urban equivalent of the “thousand yard stare”. The short time they spend with the Street Safe team makes them feel different, more like real people again, just simply cared for. Whilst they were enjoying the food, and trying on the new clothes, they couldn’t really think of the words to fully express their gratitude to the whole Street Safe Team – it was summed up, briefly, on many occasions – “They’re like Angels, they’re diamonds – and they do this just for us!”
Every homeless person should be viewed as someone for whom the system has catastrophically failed. Not only that, the system has unceremoniously spat them out and disregarded them; a form of non-religious, social, excommunication. They are the “lost souls” of our society wandering aimlessly in their own purgatory. Each story will tell us where the system is broken; the point at which they were pushed into the cavernous crack, plunged into darkness. They don’t need contempt, abuse, judgement, scorn, or to be patronised – they just need a significant and firm, helping hand, to bring them back…inside.