I’ve recently moved to Lincoln; a beautiful city with its cobbled streets, independent coffee houses, trendy eateries all nestled in the shadow of the awe-inspiring Cathedral and august castle. But dotted around this impressive landscape are the signs of hardship and poverty. Some drug-induced and alcohol soaked, others hopeless and resigned. First, I was shocked at the sheer number of homeless people living on our streets but, slowly, I realise I’m becoming immune. I flash an apologetic smile and walk past as they reach out a hand asking for small change. A small bullet of guilt stabs at my gut but this is quickly diluted by a mixture of fear (What might happen if I get involved), judgement (For goodness sake – there are charities that can help you – get up and sort it out) and selfishness (I’m busy and I don’t want to stop walking, thank you very much) and then I feel ashamed.
I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit recently, and a few months ago did get involved with my church – helping with clothes bank and chatting with the street people over a cup of tea. But listening to their stories was quite overwhelming, and I felt so inadequate. How can I help these people out of their murky mires? Every time I made a suggestion, they had a reason for it not working, and, in the end, it was easier not to listen. There were plenty of people available to sort out the clothes bank, and anyway, we could only give clothes to people who were referred to us by Social Services. My contribution felt pretty fruitless and, believing my excuses to be both relevant and genuine, I stopped going.
But God won’t let me forget them.
Yesterday I had a gloomy day (One of my black dog days – I get a few of them). After sending the children off on an outing with their dad, I tucked myself into my duvet and watched a film. When I feel like this I tend to go for one of those really awful American Christian films with mediocre acting, and a cheesy storyline. I’m not ashamed to admit I love these films. They have the ability to make me feel closer to God. Anyway, this film was called Hiding in Plain Sight and was about a faith-filled middle-class family (two adults and two children) who had fallen on hard times and found themselves living out of a car for six months. The dad was a university graduate, an IT specialist who’d been made redundant. His wife’s respect and trust in her husband never wavered, (I struggled to believe that one) and the two children went to school each day and slept in the car by night. The little boy stole other children’s lunches because he was so hungry. Entertaining, yes but surely exaggerated – this does not happen to middle-class families in the land of milk and honey!
I don’t know why, but after the film had finished I googled ‘American families living out of their cars’ and couldn’t believe the truth. Not only did this happen but it is actually quite common. Well-educated, poverty-stricken families hiding in cars, trying to protect their children from being taken from them, one adult staying awake to keep watch. I couldn’t believe it! There are even a number of charities set up – one called Dreams for Change, who work with organisations to offer their carparks to families living in such conditions. They are safe in these carparks at night and the Dreams for Change help these families to get back to work and into proper accommodation. There are so many articles reporting on this problem from New York Times 2006 to The Guardian Dec 2017
The land of `milk and Honey is flawed and the system is one-sided. Thank God, I tell myself, things are not so bad in England. Not so bad but still pretty bad, and could it be we are moving in the same direction? More and more cuts are being made, and it is the vulnerable that suffer. Yes, I can point the finger at the homeless and justify my exclamations of ‘Sort yourself out! Find work! Stop smoking! Stop gambling! Quit that drug habit!’ But who am I to judge? Who am I to say they should be able to help themselves?
So, what does Jesus expect me to do about it?
He expects me to take the slack. To help even in the smallest way from putting a packet of cornflakes into the food bank at Tesco to placing a hot cup of Costa into the hands of the freezing homeless man sitting in a doorway. I can help with clothes or food bank through my church or volunteer with one of the homeless charities such as the Nomad Trust or Shelter. I can do a lot or a little but above all, I must never stop seeing the homeless people as my brothers and sisters. Yes, they’ve hit hard times – whether they’re alcoholics, drug addicts, whether it’s their own fault or it purely accidental, whether they are in this country illegally or legally – I do not judge, I do not assume. I reach out in love. Even if it’s just a smile and a few kind words.