Thursday, 20 August 2015

Londons "invisible" homeless

Did you know that there are people walking the streets of London with special powers? You probably watch Marvel superhero films and are stunned by the special effects, but in London there are hundreds of people walking the streets who don't need CGI to assist them. You are probably thinking "what's he been smoking this morning". Well I kid you not (and I've not been smoking anything thank you). The people I am talking about are Londons homeless. The powers I am talking about are the power to become invisible. I'd not noticed this (well I suppose if someone is invisble you wouldn't) before, but a tweet by Tory blogger and pundit Ian alerted me to this rather intertsing fact.
I love Edinburgh but can't fail to notice that in this SNP led nirvana there appear to be more homeless people on the streets than in London

I thought I'd check out the stats. Crisis reports that in Scotland there were approx 500 rough sleepers. In London there were 7,518.  So although we don't have a separate figure for Edingburgh, we can see that either Ian Dale has succumbed to the powers of invisibility of London homeless, which clearly Scottish rough sleepers lack or maybe he's just talking out of his armpit.

This is an issue that is close to my heart. I am writing this blog in my kitchen at 11.25 this morning, two hours ago I was finishing up my morning shift at The Passage, a charity which operates a day centre for Londons homeless. I am a kitchen volunteer. Please note that I am writing this blog in a private capacity and it in no way represents the views or policies of The Passage.

Let me tell you about my morning.

I got up at 5.40am. I had a quick shower, checked my emails had a cup of tea and got the 6.32 train from Mill Hill to St Pancras. At 6.57 I took a Victoria Line train to Victoria and arrived at The Passage at 7.15. First job is to set up for the morning breakfast service. When I arrived Alex, another volunteer was already starting to set up. We have to put out condiments, tea cups, make tea and coffee flasks up. We put out Jam, Marmalade and Marmite for the clients. As we were doing this Bella, Darren and Anne, other volunteers arrived. I had a quick chat with our chef Noor. Noor is from Kenya and there is always a good bit of banter with him. I won't embarrass him with the subect today, but lets say it was a good day for banter! Once we have set up, we wait for the breakfast to be cooked. The service starts at 8am (ish). Hot food is provided. A full English breakfast Sausage, Bacon at 15p per slice/portion, eggs, tomatoes, mushroomsnd porridge at 10p an serving. Tea/Coffee and the first two slices of toast are free. Clients with no monety get a voucher worth 60p. We also provide fruit (this morning I chopped up a pineapple and six melons). There were also ample free sandwiches donated by Pret.

At 8am there is a rush. This morning as it was cold and wet out, it was very busy for the first twenty minutes. I estimate that we served 40-50 breakfasts. I was on toast duties, Bella and Anne on serving and Darren on the till. Alex retreated to the kitchen to help Noor. People coming in to volunteer for the first time are often quite surprised by the clients.  I doubt that you'd notice many of them in the street or pick them out as homeless. The majority are male, quite a few are Eastern European, although sadly a fair few are British and Ex forces. Some will be chatty, some will be withdrawn. Some are animated and some are silent. Quite a few have health issues. Some this is obvious such as diabetics who avoid certain foods. Others will tell you about issues and some you just see chatting with the medical staff. I've been volunteering for three and a half years, today I think I saw only one client who was coming when I started. Many have moved on. Some have passed away. Generally the Eastern Europeans move home. Often they came looking for work or lost jobs. Often they can receive assistance to return home (although I am not knowledgable about this).On a cold wet day such as today, the mood is relatively subdued. Often people will spend the first half hour warming up.  The Passage provides all manner of support services for the homeless. The aim is to try and get people into accomodation and employment. For many this is acheived. Sadly though some of the clients cannot easily be helped into a less chaotic lifestyle. For some this is their choice and for others, there is no choice. They have too many issues to be able to manage a jop and the responsibilities of accomodation. Often this is a result of mental health issues. Often when you talk to hardcore rough sleepers you realise that they are highly intelligent, but our society is just not compassionate enough to give them the help they need to live a regular lifestyle. For many, they don't need handouts, they simply need assistance with the stress, strains and pressures that modern life entails. Over the years I've spoken to several ex service personell and they find it hard transitioning from an environment where they have no decisions to make, rent is deducted from paychecks and hot meals just arrive to one where everything has to be planned. I find it a scandal that the MOD takes no responsibility for helping such people. Strangely enough such people find rough sleeping  easier as it is more compatable with the self sufficiency they have learned. Sadly though, many suffer from the rigours of a life of hard drinking and other issues with substances.

Working at The Passage is hugely rewarding. I like to think that my fellow regular Thursday volunteers have become friends. We work well as a team and they are a very interesting lot. I guess that just to be there ou have to be decent and compassionate. I tweeted to Ian Dale that maybe he'd like to try a shift. Then maybe he'd start to see the real depth of the London homeless crisis. Sadly though, I suspect that what he actually saw was street beggars who presumably congregate in Edinbiurgh for the festival as there are rich pickings. There is a misconception that all rough sleepers beg. This is again wide of the mark. It is certainly a misconception that all beggars sleep rough. I personally do not give to people begging in the street. I suppose I take the moral high ground because I volunteer for a homeless charity, but if you have spare cash, give it to an organisation that can help them. If you give £5 to the passage, that will pay for ten breakfasts. If you give it to a street beggar, it may simply buy ten fags and a cheap can of lager. If you think ten fags and a can of lager is good value then fine, but ten people could have had a breakfast and received help to get into a better situation. There are many fine homeless charities. In Barnet we have Homeless Action Barnet, there is Crisis and Shelter and The Passage to name a few.

The sad thing is that Homeless People aren't really invisible, we just shut our eyes to them. Do you really want to be a member of a soceity that throws its fellow man to the wolves? I don't, thats why I haul my sorry arse out of bed every Thursday in the rain, when I'd rather turn over and get another hours shut eye. I've done many things in my life, but volunteering at The Passage is something which has taught me more than any other about life, our city and myself.

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