The creation of a charity, from the very beginning.
I would like to start by apologizing for my lack of blogging lately. My dissertation deadline is looming over me and I feel guilty every time I type something unrelated. Therefore, until February, I will be face down in numerous articles on sexual exploitation, with intermissions for chocolate binging. But after that, I will be bombarding you with ramblings, discoveries and developments in the world of Youth Justice as I embark on my one hundred day placement at a Youth Offending Service.
I hope everyone has had a good Christmas. Although, if you didn’t, I hope you didn’t get too stressed/upset that the day wasn’t completely perfect. It’s just another day of the year. Whilst, there is a lot of potential in Christmas, I forgot the meaning of it years ago. I suspect that if you asked most children what Christmas is about, they would answer ‘a celebration of the coca-cola truck advert’. But, yes, Merry Christmas.
I have spent this holiday re-evaluating almost everything I believe in. It’s been very eventful and much too chaotic a process to relay here. I would like to share with you, however, the event that ignited the chaos.
On the 22nd of December, I attended the funeral of a homeless man, Colin. I had never met the man nor did I know anything about him. (Just to reassure you, I do not make a habit of going to funerals of people I do not know; that would be a bit too morbid- even for me.) My mother, is a priest and had told me about the funeral. She told me that Colin, aged 42, was well known to the parish homeless centre and had been murdered over a debt of £20. I asked my mother if anyone was going to the funeral and she said she did not know. All she knew was that it was to be state funded. I do not know whether it was due to my experience of working with homeless young people; my depression at the government’s disregard for those in poverty; or general Social Worker guilt (which is worse than Catholic guilt, I can assure you!) but I decided I was going to go to the funeral.
Now, if I’m being perfectly honest, I assumed that it would be a small service with only a handful of people there. I assumed Colin was homeless due to a lack of support networks. I should have known better than to assume.
When I arrived at the crematorium, the only people there were myself, the two priests and three people who had worked at the homeless shelter. The service was due to start at 5pm. There was a delay. We waited. 5.15… 5.30pm. Then the coffin arrived and the reason for the delay was evident.
Following the coffin was a crowd of fifty, maybe sixty people. I later learned that there were members of the homeless community, Colin’s family members and friends. A few minutes in to the service, the priest asked a man called Kevin to come to the front as he wanted to say a few words. Three people stood up and one man rushed to the front. All three were so desperate to say something about Colin.
The first man was stumbling, mixing his words and was clearly very emotional, but he spoke straight from the heart. He described Colin as a loud and boisterous character; a force of nature. ‘You always knew when Colin was in town’. And as he choked back the tears, he described Colin as a brother. A fiercely loyal man who was closer to him than his real family.
It was a short speech, but the affection towards Colin and the grief at his loss were evident.
The second man stood up to speak. He was a tall man in a worn suit and looked as if he had been sleeping on the streets. He pulled out a small scrap of paper from his coat. On it was a speech he had prepared. He could not read very well and was clearly very nervous. He began by thanking Colin for his friendship and his company. He thanked him for the adventures they had spent together; for the difficulties they shared together. They had argued, he said, but they too were as close as brothers. It was a short speech, but as he read it, it was obvious how much time and effort the man had put in to writing it. Whilst he did not enjoy reading, writing or public speaking, he needed to say goodbye to his friend and it needed to be perfect.
The third man who had stood up at the start was now in tears and not able to speak and so a phone was held up to the microphone. The phone started playing a song, one which I have never heard, and everyone in the congregation began to sing.
And as I sat there, I was overcome with grief. For a man I had never met. I have always valued human life. I have always believed that death is never anything to celebrate, regardless of the individual, and that every life is sacred. But something happened to me at this funeral and I felt as if I had been knocked backwards.
Colin was homeless, had never had a job and (as I later discovered) had been addicted to drugs since the age of thirteen. Colin was the man that many people walk past in the street and do not find the courtesy to even speak to. Colin was the man people sneer at and criticise for being homeless, for being addicted to drugs, for being the cause of his own misery. Colin was the man who sleeps outside on those snowy December nights when we wouldn’t even leave the house to go to the shops. To many people he was a nobody. But to the people at his funeral, he was a very important somebody.
My grief was not just for Colin, but for the country I live in; for society. How can homelessness still exist in this country? In this 21st Century capitalist society where the possibilities are endless and individuals can spend tens of thousands on one lunch? Colin, had a large family, a wife, a daughter, close friends, professional support and yet was still homeless. We seem to have forgotten that homelessness can happen to anyone. That your world can come tumbling down around you at any moment and one day you can wake up with nothing. Our grandparents knew that all too well after the world wars. They knew how easy it was for you to lose everything over night and that there needs to be a system in place that will support you if it happens.
If we cannot find it in our hearts to fight for those less fortunate than ourselves simply because they are human beings, we, as a society, must at least begin to acknowledge that our place in society is not set in stone and we may one day need a back up plan. If Colin had been able to beat his drug addiction, find a job and a home, who knows what he could have done or who he may have been. Although it doesn’t really matter that he wasn’t an academic, great sportsman or conventional “success”; he made a huge difference to those he met. I do believe, however, that he did deserve a certain standard of living which he did not receive.
Homelessness is an extremely complex problem which requires more than a roof over someone’s head. It’s about housing, job security, strong families, education, health and so much more- but it’s not unbeatable. Rather than walk past Colin as he sits by the side of the road, we all need to stop and say ‘we have had enough’. We need to make it clear to the government, to charities, to our friends and to neighbours, that we will no longer stand for the crime that is homelessness. We must all work together to fight it. Next time we see a homeless person, we need to look past the homeless part and just see… the person.
Colin deserved a home, a job and a life. And if we all demanded it, he could have had it.
I implore you all to read more, research more and blog more about homelessness. To lobby, to fight and to preach until homelessness is confined to the history books. And most importantly, I beg of you, not to view homeless people as ‘homeless people’, different to you or I, but a person who could benefit from your help.
Together, we can make 2012 a genuinely happy New Year.