Thursday, 26 February 2015

Forgive us our trespasses as...

It is ironic that during the reign of Pope Francis I have blogged considerably less on the subjects of poverty and homelessness than I did under Pope Benedict XVI, but then Benedict XVI did not give Catholic bloggers any need to constantly reaffirm Catholic teaching. It was never felt to be under any threat from the top.

Here in Brighton there seems to be a general hardening against the homeless. Nearly all car parks have now been made much secure with card readers so that homeless people find it hard to access them. They tend to be just that degree or two warmer than outside, but they've been made homeless unfriendly places. A friend of mine recently evicted from West Pier Project, Hove told me that he was even moved on by a security guard at 12.30 am. from the loading bay near where I live. He's been sleeping there on and off, in all seasons, for many years. Instead, he had to sleep out in the open on London Road where he feels much more vulnerable to attacks.

It seems that, over time, I have developed something of a 'reputation' where I live for knowing some homeless people. Therefore, if someone keeps accessing the building at night and using the top floor to keep warm, then they assume it is me who is letting him in. I must say I cannot blame this individual, named Adam, for wanting to find shelter. It's been absolutely freezing in Brighton these past couple of months. The temperature has picked up a little now, but still, its not pleasant out there at night.

So it was that yesterday I was visited by a managing agent for the property who wanted to get my side of the story on Adam, our frequent visitor.  The caretakers of the building knocked on my door yesterday to accuse me of letting Adam into the building because 'he's the guy who knows homeless people'. Unfortunately, Jason, another homeless person, had decided to come into the building via the trades entrance that very morning and leave his sleeping bag and two other bags outside my flat door, so as I talked to this man and woman in my morning t-shirt and boxer shorts, they assumed that this stuff belonged to Adam. They had 'the evidence'.

"Well anyway," they said, "its not your corridor. People can't just leave their stuff here."

Whose corridor is it? In fact, whose stair well is it? Anyway, I had to take his stuff into my flat, otherwise the caretakers would have literally thrown it out, his only belongings, his sleeping bag, etc. I had a long argument with the caretakers about Adam, who sneaks into the building so he can get warm upstairs near the lift, concerning the fact that he leaves a mess, cigarette ends, other mess, that they have to sort out new carpet, that he's a problem, its ongoing, its a real problem and to confirm that I have not been letting homeless people into the building. One day I heard him literally being chased down my corridor by two community police officers.

Of course, if homeless people do manage to gain entrance into the building to keep warm, as a Catholic, I'm not sure how angry I can get about that. I'm not even sure how much I should do to try and stop it. I know that people pay or have paid a lot of money to live in the flats in this building and they didn't sign up to buying a flat in a makeshift homeless hostel, and when they walk out of their flat to go to work, do not expect to find a homeless man smoking outside their flat door, but with all that said, just how angry should residents get that a poor man seeks shelter in a stairwell?

Having informed the managing agent that I have not been letting Adam in, he says to me,

"We've issued Adam with a letter banning him from the building. Something has to be done and we're going to have to get tougher with him if it carries on." 

I told him that unless he's going to provide 24-hour security guards on the doors of the building I'm not sure what he should do. I was also told that I was in danger of 'putting your own home at risk' because of Adam - even though I'm not letting him in. What that means is that if enough residents wanted to say 'it's him, it's him' who is letting Adam in, as witnesses, even if they haven't seen me doing any such thing, I could get a County Court Injunction against my name for being an anti-social neighbour encouraging the anti-social behaviour of trespassing in order to keep warm. I've got a wife to look after, etc.

As it happened, and much to my surprise, after I came home from Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament yesterday I did see Adam. He had obviously gained access from some other resident because his bag was propping open the front door of the building. You have to admire his courage and persistence having been chased several times out of the building. I really don't think he is mentally very well at all. I had a cigarette with him and talked to him about the accusations against me. Somewhat against my conscience I discouraged him from coming to the building, explaining to him that because I have a reputation in the building for chatting to homeless people or giving them a cup of coffee every now and then, that residents assume I'm the person letting him in, that it could all fall on me and that I could end up in serious housing problems myself if I get a County Court Injunction against me. He replied, "Don't worry about it. I usually find somewhere" but the poor lamb did look genuinely disappointed. Well, you would be, in his position.

Rather hastily, I gave his bag to him, which had been propping open the door and told him I couldn't let him in, even though, of course, I hadn't in the first place. Someone else had, probably unknowingly. I watched him walk off and, of course, now feel rather bad about it in this holy season of Lent when we are meant to show mercy to the poor. Quite what Pope Francis, or, more importantly, our Judge and Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, makes of that decision, I shudder to think. I expect Our Lord will call me a coward or worse on the Last Day. After all, He did say, 'Whatever you do for the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'

I comforted myself in bed thinking the temperature has gone up to 6 degrees at night so that's not so bad. Then I went to the window and saw it had started pouring with rain. Having talked with Adam, I know that he doesn't engage at all with the local services, has no contact with Rough Sleepers, is intent on just surviving day by day and looks for somewhere to crash at night. He doesn't have any friends, doesn't use any day centres, doesn't claim benefits of any kind and, in fact, refuses donations of food, drink and even sleeping bags. I've tried giving him all three and he just says, 'No'.

I suppose that in a more just and caring world, with a more Christian, just and caring me, I would have pretended not to see Adam and let him go about his business. After all, its not my building and I'm not a security guard for it. In a more just and caring world, I wouldn't have to raise the issue with him. In a more just and caring world, the most likely very wealthy Stiles Harold Wilson company of managing agents for the property with an 'Ethical Property Centre' in the basement wouldn't seek to get 'tougher' with a young vulnerable homeless man who keeps seeking shelter in a stairwell at night in winter in one of their buildings.

Isn't the world, for him, already tough enough? In a more just and caring world, in a Christian society, with Christian values, they might even discreetly consider housing him, instead of persecuting him. After all, they are the ones with the properties and the attending revenue. Flat number 3 in my corridor is empty, I believe, and has been for quite some time. Instead of the police and the property agents 'getting tougher' and 'clamping down' on a young, vulnerable homeless man seeking shelter in one of their properties, instead of chasing him out of buildings where he seeks shelter, why not work to house him? Or is that completely absurd? Just a thought. I guess that is simply not the way of the world.

Keep Adam, please, in your prayers.


Nicolas Bellord said...

Laurence: I can understand your dilemma. Is there no provision in Brighton for rough sleepers such as the Openhouse in Crawley? Although that is usually full and cannot take in just anyone who arrives. What does the Council do about the problem? Is there a case for something really basic such as a large garage like space with some heating where people could come in whatever state and doss down? The problem with many hostels for the homeless is that there are people who are just too disruptive to accommodate. Any ideas? I believe that in Crawley when the temperature drops below a certain level for three nights or so they do provide some basic accommodation. It always struck me that it could be just as miserable when it was pouring with rain but the temperature was not below zero.

Anonymous said...

my son is currently homeless in San Francisco; please pray for him.

Mary Kay said...

I don't know that I should comment. I'm a nurse, in a large-ish city in the NW US. There are charitable organizations to take care of the homeless and unstable people. Sometimes those people need to be reminded that they cannot take over the homes, even the hallways, of others who have paid for them. They must use the services that are available, even if they aren't great. I understand your anguish. On the other hand, you and your neighbors do not work hard to keep up your rents so that others may squat on the premises. We should gladly give to the charitable organisations that help such people, and then we should encourage those people to use the services we help to provide. Unless you can give them your own home, they might need to take what is offered to them, as I might have to do in their situation.

I don't know that I'm quite old enough to be your mother, but this is what I would tell my sons.

Unknown said...

Mary Kay, I am also a nurse in the NW USA and I agree with everything you said. I donate food and clothing to the local shelter here.

Seattle Kim

Physiocrat said...

People cannot be expected to be able to isolate themselves from these things by buying into a nice neighbourhood.

However, this a symptom of catastrophic failure at the political level. We Catholics are as much to blame as anyone, since most of us have failed to familiarise ourselves with 125 years of Catholic Social Teaching. Deficient though it is, CST is a good starting point for the development of policies which would put an end to the kind of thing you are describing. Not that the political elite would want to know, even if we did. It can only get worse as people drift in from other parts of the world to get away from the miseries there.

We are in for challenging times. The politics of Britain is reverting to what it has always been, with Whig and Tory elites, and populists at the fringes.

Mary Kay said...

Thank you, Kim. Sometimes I feel I'm a bit harsh. Most of us don't like to think about ourselves in that same situation. But I do believe that we have to take the charity offered to us if we are in such a position, and then hope to be able, in the future, to help others in the same way if we are able. I was actually told last summer, in California, that the beggar I bought lunch for didn't like the lunch I bought for him. I decided that for the most part I will now only help the small agencies that help the homeless.

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