Friday 21 August 2015

Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice

Stephen Fear and Richard Pendlebury

Stephen Fear, member of Fear Group and patron of Emmaus Bristol, blogs about why homelessness isn't  a lifestyle choice.

People often say when they see someone begging under a cash point, “Why doesn’t he or she just get a job?"  My answer to the question is that something will have gone wrong in this person’s life, often many years before, which has yet to be put right.

I liken it to a car battery which is flat. No matter how hard you try to start your car, until you connect the battery to a charger and put some new energy back, it will remain dormant.

People do not sit under a cash point at 2 am in freezing rain as a lifestyle choice, they do it because they might as well sit there and try to get some loose change, as sleep in a doorway and get nothing! Either way the following day will be bleak.

Loneliness is a big issue and one that faces many people, not only the homeless, but when someone has no home, no money and no friends that emotion is exacerbated.

Imagine sitting under that cash point still wet from the day before, watching revelers coming out of nightclubs in groups or couples, laughing and enjoying themselves. You know that they are off home to a warm bed. They will probably get up the next day and have a nice breakfast washed down with fresh tea or coffee.

They will perhaps go off to work full of food in the certain knowledge that come lunchtime they will eat yet more food. When they finish their day's work they will go home to yet more food, and a warm bed. Many will have families who love them. The whole feeling and lifestyle is one of comparative wealth, warmth and caring.

Now go back to our homeless person, let’s call him John, although this person could also be a lady called Jane. More and more women are becoming homeless.

John’s quest for a few pence ended at 3 am when no revelers remained on the street. On the particular evening described John just avoided a kicking by a group of youths that he noticed before they noticed him. He was lucky on this occasion as he scuttled out of sight. He has previously been attacked and beaten many times. It happens to the homeless frequently. The streets are not a nice place at night when you’re vulnerable and have no home to go to.

I know because I’ve done it. Not in recent years thankfully, but at times as a child.

Walking down the street in the lashing rain John wonders how he ever got into this mess. He never used to drink.

Following a family breakup many years before he started drinking. One thing led to another and finally he lost his job. This in turn ended with him losing his home and then the ultimate humiliation, his family.

John was a manager in a high street store. It was a good job. He was respected, he had two kids and a wife, but has no idea where they are today. He lost touch years ago. The memory of them has faded but is not extinguished. He tries to forget because the memory is painful. He wonders whether his children now have children of their own? Could he really be a grandfather? His imagination runs riot and the memories become more painful, especially at 3 am on a Saturday morning. Not that John follows days of the week much. He stopped doing that years ago.

One morning all those years ago he woke up and just couldn’t cope anymore. He went out looking for work but ended up sitting on a park bench wondering what to do. It was then that he started drinking heavily. His family had been moved to a hostel following eviction which had led to separation because he wasn’t housed with them. This separation just became the norm as his drinking became worse.

In the end John just couldn’t muster the energy or inclination to restart his life so for 20 years wondered the streets of Birmingham, Bristol and Cardiff. He tried to get himself a job and get his life straight but just couldn’t manage it until he found Emmaus.

Emmaus was founded in 1949 by Father Henri-Antoine Groues, better known as Abbé Pierre, in Paris. Abbe Pierre was disturbed by the number of homeless servicemen on the streets of the French capital following World War Two. Instead of turning a blind eye he decided to do something about it and started taking people back to his own home which quickly became overcrowded. He even built additional temporary houses in his garden. Eventually this led to the establishment of homes across France and Britain including one in Bristol where Dr Richard Pendlebury MBE is Chief Executive.

All Emmaus communities are real homes where everyone lives as part of an unrelated family. Usually about twenty formerly homeless people become ‘family’ members.

All family members become known as companions and are expected to play their part in family life. Some cook, some clean, some have external jobs and some work within the communities own shop or in repairing furniture and other items gifted to them by the general public. It isn’t a free ride and is designed to return formerly homeless people to society and the workplace. To give them back their dignity.

All Emmaus communities require income just like your home does. The members of the family are expected to contribute fully to home and work. They know the rules. No drinking alcohol and no drugs of any sort. No stealing from the home or family members is tolerated.

Each home has a shop and factory/warehouse where minor repairs to gifted items are carried out. There is a van which is used to collect items and make deliveries within about a twenty mile radius. It is this function as well as donations that sustains the community and its companions.

Emmaus is a wonderful and well run charity of which I’m proud to be a patron. Its president is Terry Waite, humanitarian and former Middle East envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Terry was famously captured by Jihadists in 1987 while trying to negotiate hostage release. He was then held captive by being chained to a wall for nearly five years, the first four in solitary confinement. He must truly know the meaning of loneliness so is well placed to understand the loneliness that affects many homeless people. He is also a man of great humility and human kindness. His story is worth reading. A link to his wiki page is here.

I believe giving your time is as important as giving your money so if you can help by volunteering then why not contact your local Emmaus community now and offer your services.

If you prefer to make a donation of money or unwanted items please contact the Emmaus community nearest to you which will advise on how to do this. Find your local Emmaus here.

Remember that homelessness isn’t a lifestyle choice. Just like Abbe Pierre you too can make a difference by getting involved in supporting your local Emmaus community by contacting us today.

Emmaus is a genuine social enterprise that is giving back personal dignity and self-worth to former homeless people. It is a very worthy cause that needs your help to survive. Please help if you can.

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