To follow is Chapter 4 in a series that is my personal tranformative journey from my early years. This story began with me living as a long term unemployed single parent with two children with different fathers, never being married. I was definitely on the bottom rung of society. I lived in the highest unemployed town in the UK with the demise of its Iron and Steel, Chemical and Shipbuilding industries, thus experiencing years of poverty and ostracisation. This is the story of how, supported by a strong Christian faith, I deeply analysed and navigated my way through it all, to an absolutely fulfilling life.
In the light of what’s happening in this chaotic world today, I feel moved to tell my story with all its different facets, because my main hope is that the reader will see the human face of the marginalised. Then, hopefully, gain a more compassionate understanding of all those who live on the margins of society. I hope the reader finds clues on how to make connections with people different from them, or to change the top down competitive economic system so all people are justly valued whether they were in paid work or out of paid work.
I invite the reader to pick any chapter and, if it resonates with you, to organise a zoom working group in the New Republic of the Heart community to discuss and explore any particular issue or let it inform the work you are already doing.
I acknowledge that every single one of us has our own unique experience from our own unique perspective waiting to be heard and learned from. This is simply my experience. I’d love to maybe one day hear and learn from yours.
To read Chapter 3, click HERE.
CHAPTER 4 ~ WORKING WITH THE HOMELESS:
My College Placement with Teesside Homeless Action Group
“When you meet anyone it is a Holy encounter. As you see him/her, you will see yourself. As you treat him/her, you will treat yourself.” A Course in Miracles
Note: For reasons of confidentiality, names in this chapter have been changed.
Middlesbrough is within ten miles of a beautiful coastline and wild moorland scenery. In the 1830’s, iron ore was found in the Cleveland Hills. Overnight Middlesbrough was transformed from a little hamlet into a boom town of heavy industry. Tens of thousands of immigrants worldwide had flocked to Middlesbrough to work in its Chemical, Shipbuilding and Iron and Steel Industries. A lot of them from Ireland, the Indian subcontinent, and Somalia settled around the St. Hilda’s area, which was one of the four ‘wards’ within the town centre. The demise of these three major industries between the 1970’s – 90’s led to the deskilling of the local population with dire consequences.
Work patterns in Middlesbrough were changing, and where there were once tens of thousands of unskilled heavy industry jobs, they were now seriously lacking. All around Middlesbrough were posters saying ‘Truancy Free Zone’ which reflected the serious problem of school truancy. This in turn reflected the low educational achievements and low level of employable skills. Illiteracy and low educational achievement were serious problems . Illiteracy was a major factor to social exclusion.
St Hilda’s ward was divided into two communities linked by an underground railway bypass. A railway line and the A66 motorway isolated about 600 residents to the north from the main town centre area in the south, where the residents usually called themselves ‘town centre residents.’ The town centre was the commercial and retail centre of the Tees Valley and provided 60% employment. Teesside University gave the area a vibrant cosmopolitan atmosphere, however the surrounding neighbourhoods were economically isolated. As a volunteer, I taught English to the even more isolated minority town centre residents from the Indian subcontinent and Somalia.
“It’s interesting that given all these problems across the region, health and social work job vacancies declined by 46.9% between October 1996 and October 1997. In 1998, Middlesbrough Council reduced its Community Development workers from 28 people to 8 for the whole of Middlesbrough.”
(Tees Valley Tec Brochure). This coincided with the collapse of Barings Bank.
From 1994 to 2002, the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) was the UK government’s main regeneration fund that was intended to enhance the quality of life of local communities.
St Hilda’s town centre residents were included in the SRB funding area. The people of St Hilda’s that lived north of the railway were not. Those residents were further isolated by the ghostly remnants of the heavy industry and the River Tees. It’s always been nicknamed ‘Over the Border’ with negative connotations. Being excluded left residents feeling even more deprived and isolated. The quality of life and business community in St. Hilda’s was significantly reduced by prostitution.
In 1997 as my college placement, I was placed with Teesside Homeless Action Group (THAG), a self help group of homeless and ex-homeless people. Francis, its founder, had been homeless and sleeping on the streets of London with his beloved dog beside him for 9 years. In pride of place above Francis’ desk was a photograph of himself inside Buckingham Palace standing in line with other people shaking hands with the Prince of Wales. He was receiving the ‘Prince’s Trust Award’ in recognition of his innovative work getting himself off the streets of London and doing fantastic work supporting other single homeless people.
THAG supported single homeless people by providing information and help with finding accommodation. It provided a bond guarantee scheme to enable people to access private rented sector accommodation in Teesside. It also had a range of self-help projects run by and for homeless people, including an allotments scheme where they learned ‘permaculture’ and importantly grew their own nutritional food.
THAG had an office in the John Paul Centre (JPC) in the town centre of Middlesbrough. It was a drop in centre run by Catholic Redemptiorist Monks situated in St.Hilda’s ward.
In 1999, the statistics for St Hilda’s ward, one of the four wards in central Middlesbrough were as follows:
- It’s birth / death rate was above the national average.
- The national average for young people to fail all their GCSE’s from A-F was 7.6%. In St Hilda’s ward it was 30.6%.
- Middlesbrough had the cheapest and largest drug addiction problem in the country, increasing especially in under 25 year olds.
- Middlesbrough had the only street prostitution problem in the north east. The majority of ‘street workers’ operated in St. Hilda’s area with the age range from early teens to early 40’s. The majority of ‘kerb crawlers’ came from outside of Middlesbrough.
- There was 28.5% male unemployment and 08.4% female unemployment in St Hilda’s ward with 21% illiteracy.
- St. Hilda’s had the highest crime rates.’
Ref: Joint Strategy Unit (JSU) Teesvalley Statistics’ 1999
Note: St Hilda’s ward housed the main shopping centres, night clubs, restaurants, bars and commercial areas. Hence the high levels of crime rate.
At that time, Middlesbrough’s Chief Inspector of Police, Ray Mallon, brought back Rudy Giulianni’s New York ‘Zero Tolerance Policy’ over from America. The Zero Tolerance Policy gave the same punishment for any crime, big or small, whether for breaking a window or for anything else far more serious. I thought this was was totally unjust.
“According to scholars, zero tolerance is the concept of giving carte blanche to the police for the inflexible repression of minor offenses, homeless people, and the disorders associated with them. A well-known criticism of this approach is that it redefines social problems in terms of security. It considers the poor as criminals, and it reduces crimes to only ‘street crimes,’ those committed by lower social classes and excludes white-collar crimes.”
(Wikipedia: Zero Tolerance)
In reality, this meant that if any tenant caused a problem, they would be evicted from the area. This in turn created ghetto areas of drug addicts, alcoholics and street workers. Unfortunately, in this situation, it was extremely difficult for a drug addict or alcoholic to come off their drugs, alcohol or habit even if they had spent months getting ‘clean’ in rehab, since they were immediately re-housed back into those ghetto areas that kept them addicted.
The John Paul Centre backed up to a ‘red light’ district. There was a strict rule not to bring drugs or alcohol into the centre. The main hub of the centre was a coffee bar. The long room was on two levels. The upper level housed a Catholic bookshop with tables where people could sit and have a cup of tea and hot soup.This level was usually frequented by retired professional elderly people, and others popping in after the daily mass in the chapel that was opposite the coffee bar. Some often complained about those on the lower level.
The lower level was frequented by drug addicts, single parents, homeless and others on the margins of society. They came into the centre for warmth, companionship and a cheap cup of tea and a bowl of hot soup and sandwich. Children joined their parents in the coffee bar, but were always told by some of the elderly at the top to sit still and not run about. It was on this lower level where I spent most of my time.
Once I noticed a lady behind the tea counter giving a look of sympathetic comfort to an elderly woman standing next to me in the queue. Through the conversation I heard that the woman’s son in law had just suffered a mild stroke after having his leg amputated. She went down and sat next to her elderly sister in the empty coffee bar. After asking permission, I sat near them and opened up a conversation to help her pour out her troubles as she seemed a bit distressed. I don’t know how it happened, but she soon got around to ‘slagging off’ all the (in her perception) down and outs that frequented the lower end of the coffee bar. “They don’t want to work!”… ”They’re scroungers!”… “The worst are those single parents who have kids by different fathers!”… “They all should be banned from here!”
With my experience of supporting unemployed people for years, I gently went on to defend the unemployed and continued to remind her that some of the people in the centre might find it difficult to find a job as many couldn’t read or write. I also gently explained that I was a single parent, I had two children with different fathers and I’ve never been married. (I talk about this in the first chapter of this book)
It was sad, really. I’ve had similar conversations like this many times before, but they were unfortunately becoming more and more frequent. I honestly don’t think that the government is helping when it emphasises family values as being 2.2 children, immediately putting single parents into second class citizenship and a lifetime of proving themselves as human beings. I smiled to myself when the woman went on to say that she didn’t mean me, only those who had three children or more.
I went on to quote Roman’s 8: V 30 to the end from the bible, which started, “If God is for us… who can be against us?” And finished with, “Nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate ANY of us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I went on to gently explain that I felt those words were meant for every human being including the druggies, the ‘down and out’s,’ and single parents with three kids.
I don’t usually mention religion to people, but this sentence felt appropriate as I knew I was talking to a staunch Catholic lady and this sentence saw me through the hard times of being a single parent.
I also tried to understand where she was coming from. I listened intently to her telling me how she and her sister had experienced a hard life working long hours with low pay from a very young age.
We discussed the different contexts of when she was young and Middlesbrough was an economic boom town and jobs were easy to get, to now when all the major industries had disappeared in this local area. There was no comparison. It struck me there and then that most of society compared themselves to how they had once worked hard or still worked hard in more affluent parts of the country, and therefore blamed unemployed people for their own unemployment. If they just stood back and considered the context of each situation, then they might not be so bigoted against the unemployed.
“If I can create a relationship characterised on my part by a genuineness and transparency, in which I express my real feelings by a warm acceptance of and the prizing of another person as a separate individual, by a sensitive ability to see the world and himself as he sees them, then the other individual in the relationship will experience and understand aspects of himself which previously he had repressed; will find himself better integrated, more able to function effectively, would become similar to the person he would like to be, and be more self directed and self confident…more understanding…more accepting of others.”
(Rogers.C. On Becoming a Person 1967 p37-38)
A ‘street worker’ walked into the coffee bar, wearing a thin cream three quarter length raincoat, belted tightly around her waist. She looked to be in her late twenties. She was complaining at the serving hatch about her landlord just evicting her and leaving her homeless. I went over and talked with her, and with permission from THAG, I accompanied her to the Borough Council’s Homeless section to support her in finding another flat. On the way she told me, “I want to learn to read and write”…and then said…”Then maybe I can read my bible.”
While walking through the streets toward the housing office, she suddenly stopped at a hedge outside somebody’s house, took her knickers off and threw them over the hedge while inadvertently revealing she had nothing else on under that thin raincoat. She had sold her clothes the night before for £10, just enough so she could get some ‘crack’. It was an absolutely freezing cold day. She just tightened her raincoat even tighter and carried on toward the homeless housing office.
This was a big wake up check on reality for me. Witnessing how some people were actually living, a great sadness came across me. I asked her why she had been evicted. “Oh,” she said, “I wouldn’t go to bed with the f….ing landlord.” She went on to say that she wanted to be rehoused away from the area where she was living, because people knew her and kept knocking on her door at all hours of the night. I suggested she ask the housing officer to move her somewhere else where nobody knew her. She said, ”Oh that’s a f…ing waste of time. I’ve asked them loads of times., but they never do…. I just want a normal life…. I don’t want to be a f…ing prostitute, but they never believe me.” She desperately wanted to come off being a ‘street worker,’ but it was difficult. I was standing beside her when she was begging the housing officer to house her away from the same area. It was then that I interrupted and told the housing officer why she wanted to move. He answered, “Oh, I’ve heard it all before love. We know her. She’s been coming here for ages.”
She was allocated a bed sit back in the same area. On the way out she said, “See, I told you they wouldn’t f… ing believe me! They never do! What do you expect? … A few of ‘em in there were my f…ing clients….. But not any more!”
When we got back to the John Paul Centre, I arranged some second hand clothes for her that Teesside Homeless action group had accumulated for people who needed them. I later heard that a friend of mine knew her. He worked on a Christian Outreach bus that stood outside the bus station every night offering a bowl of hot soup, a warm seat and a listening ear for the homeless who wanted it. He told me he knew her and was keeping an eye on her welfare. I never saw her in the John Paul Centre again. I was looking out for her, though, thinking she might join our literacy class which was later set up.
Before I left the area, he updated me on the slow but sure improvements in her life. Apparently, she and some of her ‘street worker’ friends attended his house group bible classes. Last I heard, she finally, after a couple of years, got the flat she was waiting for.
It was also in the John Paul Centre where I met (Suzy). After experiencing horrendous abuse as a child and still going for counselling over it, she eventually became a drug addict and alcoholic. She had her children taken from her. She desperately wanted them back. She managed to come off the drugs, but her friends kept coming to her door with bottles of booze. She purposefully made herself homeless to get away from her friends, hoping she’d get rehoused into a three bedroom home big enough for her children, and especially away from people who could keep her addicted. I accompanied her to the housing office. She was deeply disappointed and depressed when she was rehoused back into the same ghetto area, but this time only into a small bed sit which gave her absolutely no possible chance of getting her children back.
Zero Tolerance was also not good for long time law abiding residents who had generations of families living close to each other. They loved the St. Hilda area, however it was now delegated as an area to send problem tenants. Their house prices plummeted and they lived in constant fear of crime.
A cabinet minister suggested problem tenants should be re-housed under bridges! ….Wow!
However there was a positive side to Zero Tolerance too. Another single parent in the John Paul Centre (Mary) had two very hyperactive children with ADHD. She left her husband after experiencing an abusive relationship and was given a house to live in with her children. She and her children stayed with me for a few nights till she sorted certain things out to move in properly. Unfortunately her house was daubed with paint, and her family was verbally abused by some neighbours. Under the ZeroTolerance policy, those neighbours were evicted and left Mary and her children in peace.
At this point, I had a well timed opportunity with a delegation from 4th World ADT: to go to the all Party Committee for Poverty in the House of Commons in London to personally talk about the Zero Policy Issue and the people it affected. All I was told was, “ Yes, there is that problem side to it.”
With 21% illiteracy in the area, I overheard a few people complain that they couldn’t read and write, but the thought of attending college to learn intimidated them. JPC was a natural meeting place for marginalised people. I asked them how they would feel if a literacy class could be set up in the centre. They warmed at the thought, especially Paul and Christa, a married couple in their late thirties who both couldn’t read and write at that time. I was delighted when they told me that, even though they couldn’t read and write, they had previously raised £12,000 for the homeless. I got the support from THAG and the Redemptorist Fathers to set up the class.
I contacted Middlesborough Council Education Department for resources and they offered a trained tutor free of charge. My job was then to find enough people to attend. This took months as it had to be negotiated slowly in different conversations. Just asking somebody to commit to learning to read and write, for some, was too daunting.
Somebody from the Education department was supposed to meet the people who had asked for the class so she could speak to each one individually to assess their needs….Nobody turned up.
She understood and said she was used to this kind of thing happening. She seemed enthusiastic about meeting in JPC and felt it important to hold these lessons in places clients felt most comfortable without feeling threatened by going into a college. I told her I would love to help with the literacy class, but I wasn’t sure if actually helping to teach them was my role.
She left forms for me to use for potential clients. I was to help them fill them out so she could eventually contact them for an interview. She needed to assess the skills they already had, and to find what they wanted from the course. Both literacy and numeracy were available.
There was a problem, though…there wasn’t a room available in the centre. We discovered that the THAG office wasn’t private enough, but then I was told that one room was available only on a Wednesday afternoon. Now all I had to do was to figure out how to pay for it.
I mentioned it to Francis, the THAG manager, and he agreed to pay for half of THAG’s training budget. I spoke to the Middlesbrough Education Department and they agreed to pay the other half. I was introduced to Wendy who would be teaching the sessions, and I volunteered to help with registration etc. for the initial meeting, and also to be a bridge between the students and the tutor. We thought this might be advisable so the students saw a friendly face in the initial session.
My role was to keep them enthused during the week to encourage them to turn up for the Wednesday sessions. Many had problems. Sometimes they would fall out with each other outside of the classroom so one would stop coming. I did a lot of reconciliation work between them outside of working hours so the one that left would return. I was there to listen to them, and to help them in whatever way I could or direct them to appropriate organisations.
The literacy class happened on a Wednesday afternoon, so that morning, knowing they would be hanging around for the literacy class to start, I held the 12 week ‘Make Your Experience Count’ course that I had previously done with young teenagers, as talked about in another chapter of this book. We did this course in a corner of the coffee bar before it was inundated by the lunchtime crowd. Then Francis suggested we use his office on those mornings while he was away doing some necessary work elsewhere. This class helped them to look at their life experience, and to identify things they enjoyed doing to find their own self worth, and to go positively forward in life.
Suzy, the ex drug addict and alcoholic who had her children taken from her, joined this class. As well as finding a new found confidence doing the course, THAG worked alongside her to get her re-housed into a better area. On the very last lesson, a big cheer went up when Suzy walked in with her children. The appeal to get Suzy’s children back was now being considered. She could now have supervised access to them.
I should have realised that two of the people who wanted to attend the literacy class were single parents. This could be a problem because we had only just secured a room for the actual lessons, and there was no other room available for children. Although the building housed other voluntary groups, none had creche facilities. There was another community centre nearby that did and I asked if our single parents could use it. They said not unless they were doing a class in their centre, because parents had to be in the same building as their children. The rest of the group would not consider leaving JPC to set up a class in a different centre.
I knew from my own experience that a lack of creche facilities was often the biggest block for single parents who wanted to improve their education or job prospects. The two mothers in the group were desperate to learn how to read and write. It was important for me to try and sort this out.
Then I had an idea – we could use local professional private childminders. With agreement from the mothers, I put them in contact with a childminding agency and things looked positive. This would cost £4 for a 2 hour session. I had a word with THAG and they would fund the sessions for one month. This was a short term solution and we had to be aware that if the literacy class grew with more single parents, we would have to find an alternative solution.
Both single parents had a lot of problems in life. Mary was the girl whose neighbours dawbed her house with paint. She attended another morning literacy class on the other side of town. She was very enthusiastic to join this one too since she was desperate to learn. She looked miserable when she told me that she couldn’t attend our afternoon literacy classes, because she would have to take her child out of childminding in the morning and walk from the other side of town to another childminder in the afternoon. It would be impossible to arrive at the class in time. I told her that she was a very special person and that she deserved to learn how to read and write, so we would sit down and find a solution together.
It was simple. If THAG would just sponsor her another £2 on top of the £4 she was getting while the class was on, she could keep her child in the morning creche all day without changing at lunch time. This also would be much better for her child. I think it was because we didn’t give up on her (which she said most people do) that Mary became very enthusiastic about the class which in turn enthused other members to join. Our literacy class started with four members. Mary, Lorna, Christa and Paul. Later Richy, Eddy and Val joined and a few others from other non profit community organisations based in the centre.
To break down the barriers between the people from the top level of the JPC cafe who usually complained about the unemployed in the centre, I asked if any of them would like to volunteer to help in the literacy class. Some did after doing a bit of training.
Because the pilot was so successful, we realised it needed to continue and more money for childcare was essential. Mary and Lorna suggested we do a 10 mile sponsored walk along the beach from Redcar to Saltburn and back again.
FLAG designed the sponsor forms and Richy from THAG, with mental health problems, learned computer skills and typed them out and printed them.
He also designed a certificate to give to all the participants who had completed the walk. He later joined the literacy class.
Mary was delighted that she had already gained £80 in sponsorship before we had even set off, which gave her a great deal of self confidence.
Setting off from Redcar Beach Guess who hobbled back LAST!
The sun shone on the day of the hike, so Mary and Lorna, the single parents, Eddy with mental health problems, Wendy the tutor with two of her children, Barry and myself set off from Redcar Beach. Barry was a heroin addict. He especially enjoyed doing the walk. It was good to see him enjoying himself. I knew he’d gained some sponsorship money. However, after the walk we didn’t see him or his sponsorship money ever again. Although the money was important, he was far more important. He was a person who needed a lot of support. He had many talents and gifts. Unfortunately, he distanced himself after the walk and I think maybe because of the money. We really missed him in the centre. We learned a lesson.
Next time we knew to put, ”Please don’t give money until after the walk,” on the sponsor forms and to elect one person to collect it all. I felt just a bit uncomfortable about this idea, because it took away the basic enabling element of ‘trust.’ However we had to be true to the sponsors and, more importantly, if we had done this in the first place, Barry may still have been with us.
Altogether £160 was raised for child minding for mothers in the literacy class. This really boosted the group and, with their new sense of achievement, they decided to go one step further and raise more funds for the literacy class. For the students to take even more pride in their class, I suggested we give it a name. After a discussion between us all, we came up with the name FLAG (Friendly Literacy Action Group).
I then supported them in organising a very successful social event. They arranged for a live band – a THAG member knew the son of the manager of Middlesbrough ‘Mind’ who belonged to a band, They only charged us a nominal fee and a free venue in a pub. FLAG used their newly gained literacy skills to write letters to request raffle prizes. Richy, with his computer skills, transferred their letters in their own words onto a computer. He added the new FLAG logo that everyone jointly designed at the top, and also made tickets for the event with the FLAG logo proudly displayed. It was a pleasure to see their sense of achievement when they walked into the office, after trudging around the town centre shops for hours, laiden with prizes that shop managers had handed to them there and then after receiving the logo’d letter. They were not deterred when on the morning of the event an absolute disaster struck! We had a phone call from the pub saying that the roof had fallen in! Everybody’s hard work was now in chaotic jeopardy.
Francis was frantically making phone calls but to no avail. It surprised me just how much ingenuity these young people had. Within hours they had another and better venue free of charge in a pub situated in the centre of town! To this day I don’t know how they managed it.That evening we all had absolutely great fun talking and mingling among the crowds, selling raffle tickets and having the occasional dance to the music of that amazingly low cost band. Francis gave a short talk about Teesside Homeless Action Group on the issues of homelessness, which opened the eyes of many of the general public that were there. With THAG’S treasurer being in charge of the ticket and raffle money, they had raised over £500 for FLAG’s childminding fund.
All this brought FLAG to the attention of Ofsted. It was a matter of great pride when I sat in the audience of a ceremony in the Town Hall to watch FLAG receive The Ofsted Regional Literacy Award for Innovation. Mary received the individual award.
The learning in all of this for me was the fact that I believe those teenagers would never have been so empowered to find their own self worth if money was just put into their lap for things they wanted to do without any effort from them. What was put into their lap though, was just a little bit of loving support and encouragement from a number of caring people at all levels, very much including each other. This was all that was needed to help them find their own deep sense of self worth which no amount of easy money could buy.
Teesside Homeless Action Group opened another office with a shop front in Redcar, a seaside town about 10 miles away from Middlesbrough. Redcar still suffered similar unemployment statistics as Middlesbrough. Mo Mowlam, the then Secretary of State to Northern Ireland who was also Redcar’s beloved MP, opened the THAG Redcar Office with much publicity. The office had a wonderful sea view which was a magnet to the homeless. THAG then got funding to get more computers to teach people computer skills. It also got funding to put computers into local homeless hostels and somebody to teach computer skills. It hired a garden allotment in Saltburn, just a few miles away, and brought somebody in to teach ‘permaculture,’ so that the members could grow their own nutritious food. Francis set up a Teesside Homeless Action Group magazine which was filled with contributions from local homeless people. This was distributed to local libraries and community centres in the area. It gave all kinds of practical advice for homeless people and recorded positive stories of local and national homeless organisations.
I then linked between the THAG office and OK 4 (a drop in centre for vulnerable 16-25 year olds), both in Redcar. I was asked to talk with them about the UN declaration of Children’s / Human Rights. This seemed to naturally lead them to volunteer to take the ‘Make your Experience Count’ course. This showed me just how their ‘rights’ had been blatantly abused.
Without going into the in’s and out’s of the programme, I’d like to introduce some of the people I worked with.
Cathy, 19 years old, told me about when she was 15 in a bedsit, her landlord locked her in her room for three months. She had to sleep in his bed although they didn’t have sex. She became hooked on heroin, which she eventually got off of. After that, she couldn’t stand being near a shut door and in every meeting she attended, the door had to be open. She recently acquired her own house after living in a homeless hostel. She does ‘self harm’ (slashes her arms with razor blades).
Enid, 19 years old, on ‘smack’, very quiet, deep. Like Cathy she had a history of self harm.
Greg, 24 years old, told me how he had been raped when he was 16. “You’re the first person I’ve ever told,” he tentatively said. Once he was in his bedsit waiting for his ‘giro’ ( unemployment benefit cheque) to arrive in the post so that nobody would pinch should it arrive when he wasn’t there. While waiting, it got too late for him to ‘sign on’ at the unemployment office, which caused him to lose his benefits for the next three months.
Garry, 20 years old and his girlfriend, Natalie, a very attractive 19 year old, lived together in a homeless hostel. They had been friends for three years and planned to get married. They were both on heroin.
Matt, 19 years old, was very articulate. He had been fostered many times with horrendous experiences until he came to his now adopted mam who he absolutely loved. He then lived in his own flat. He was openly ‘gay’ and very proud of it. He had a very caring streak in him and showed a concern for everybody. I found him to be a very deep thinker.
At one point out of the blue, Enid, not giving any indication of what she was about to do, disappeared into the toilet and returned with her arms dripping with blood and covered in razor blade cuts. I couldn’t quite believe my ears when Cathy seemed to normalise the situation. Very laid back she said, “Oh, I knew she was doing it. I gave her the razor blade,” and promptly showed me the cuts on her own arm that she had done a few nights before in a bout of depression. She said, “We do it ‘cos the awful pain that we feel from the cuts, just for a while, takes away our emotional pain.” They just carried on as if nothing had happened. This was one occasion I felt I needed to report to the manager of OK4, but the manager seemed to realise that Enid often did this. Gary and Natalie were evicted from the Homeless Hostel (drugs related) just after Natalie realised she was pregnant. Sadly, we didn’t see either of them again. Billy, with his turquoise spiky hair, had joined the group for a few weeks and started to date Matt. That was when Matt dyed his hair turquoise. The relationship didn’t last which left Matt unusually depressed. During his bout of depression Matt secretly showed me his cut arm. I felt the group was in chaos.
“Organisation as an attempted solution to chaos, is an unworkable solution. There are only two ways out of chaos…one is into organisation, but organisation is never ‘community’. The other way is into and through emptiness.”
(M.Scott Peck. ‘A Different Drum’ 1990 p 93)
I suggested that the following week, instead of following the course content, we listen to some Mindfulness Meditation relaxation tapes. They all enthusiastically agreed. I was surprised how well this session went down and we all agreed to continue to include meditation in part of future meetings.
Soon after we introduced the relaxation sessions, Cathy decided she wanted to set up a self help group for people who do self harm. With the help of our group and a module on ‘planning a task,’ she was able to think of the skills involved in getting the group together and breaking each task into small achievable aims. For example, contacting ‘self harm’ users, contacting her psychologist who she hoped would help facilitate the group, linking into the newly formed OK4 magazine, and writing an article to advertise it. She did most of the work between sessions herself with the help of Enid. By linking in with THAG, the group learned internet skills and Cathy set up a very successful blog that then attracted 60 self harm users. They met online to support each other to come off cutting themselves to pieces.
I knew a retired journalist (Mike) who once wrote for the Evening Gazette and he helped us set up an OK4 magazine. With the help of a module, ‘Skills We Enjoy Using,’ we identified different talents in the group. Enid wanted to interview people in different homeless hostels and write bi monthly evaluations of each of the hostels. Cathy used the newsletter to advertise her ‘self harm’ blog. Matt enjoyed computers and helped with publishing the magazine. He also had an ‘agony uncle’ column as he felt he was very caring, and people already went to him with their problems. We met every Tuesday morning, and continued our group work in the afternoon by linking into THAGs garden allotments, planting all different vegetables. Sometimes when the vegetables were ripe, we took them to OK 4 to use for their ‘Cooking a Healthy Meal’ session. The morning and afternoon sessions counter balanced each other, and a lot of deep conversations were revealed and frustrations vented while digging the soil. Those frustrations were dealt with in the group work in the afternoon. Other links were made between OK4 and a Christian drop in centre for the homeless in Saltburn. Alongside people in the Christian drop in centre, our group helped organise a week’s orienteering holiday where they went horse riding, hiking, abseiling, canoeing, etc.
Cathy then enrolled in a college course for counselling. I felt she would make a great counselor. Emma went on a ‘New Deal’ programme to work in a sports centre. Matt enrolled at college on an advanced IT programme.
With all the people I worked with during my college placement, both with Teesside Homeless Action Group and OK4, I’ve found it a deep privilege. They have taught me so much. They certainly opened my eyes to the other side of life and the challenging situations many people still continue to face even to this day. I admired their courage to overcome such dire circumstances. I was sad to think that so many others in society are oblivious of this, or are they? Do they choose to close their eyes to it and still continue with their judgemental statements?
The following quote from the book ‘A Different Drum’ sums all this up for me.
“As long as we look at each other purely through the mask of composure, we are looking through ‘hard eyes’. But as the masks drop and we see the courage and brokenness and deeper dignity underneath, we truly start to respect each other as fellow human beings.”
(M.Scott Peck.A Different Drum,1990:p69)
To read Chapter 3, click HERE.