Hot soup and charitable elephants
* the dignity of self-reliance is a feeling some people would happily die for
Ricky and Julian did lunch last Wednesday. It was our first, self-conceived, self-financed, and self-powered popup soup kitchen.
I was in a talk by a local homeless charity the other week - just by chance - and I was irritated.
The charity [I won't name it as they all work like this, and they *are* doing the best they can right now - no point picking at faults until we have a properly thought out integrated solution ready to go to offer as an improvement, I feel] is one of the front-line staging posts working with the local council housing service [sham] to feed poorly housed types "the [legally] homeless" [like me if I chose to ask them for their "help" - I don't; gave up long ago] into the available [chronically unavailable] relief [abusive - and only available temporarily and then they kick you out again, and you go through the whole system all over again, and again, and again...] bedding. [no sane person who had a free choice would ever choose to stay in conditions like those they "offer"]
This charity is geared up to focus on winter, as winter - as I am sure you can already guess - can be tough on those who have no option but to live and sleep on the street.
The charity makes its money from housing benefit payments for its residents and direct payments for the council's outsourced services like screening applications [abusively]. It is really a [twisted] form of a hotel business. Oh, and food and beverage services too. Only this it does for "free".
This is the problem.
I was a bit disruptive in the Q&A at this talk. It was a free talk [the charity was pitching for donations] held in the local library, and sparsely attended. But it had been very well prepared with props to educate the ignorant on what the "challenges of homelessness" feels like. Tricks like voting at photos for "spot the homeless" person.
A very affable young man "S" [my son's age], now given a new lease of life as a 1-year social work apprentice working [immorally underpaid] for this charity, with very bad teeth and a prison record and almost no education [he said he'd only learnt to read last year] gave a very, very good personal account of his experience. He spoke with great dignity - he'd a mayoral quality to him. [I've noted this in a good few street faces that I've been fortunate - no sarcasm - to have met these past years: all very strong and wise characters - flies in the face of their obvious lack of GCSEs etc!]
S had been in and out of these "relief beds" for 8 years and was just now about to get his first independent flat via a low cost housing association [we all were genuinely overjoyed with him about this - a wonderful Christmas present - no question. [given to him by himself, by the way: by his own endeavour and life of struggles - not "given" by this charity -- I am very clear on that; tho the charity's presentation appeared to make this tacit claim... that they had "rescued this person". They hadn't.]
The talk came round to food and I waded in again here: A man will walk 6 hours per day. And in the cold your body needs double. You can't even afford a cup of tea on the street. Hot food is critical - I banged on and on.
The charity used to do breakfasts but this had been curtailed a good while ago.
An older lady in the audience parped up: she used to work for this same charity, in the kitchen, a few years back, and hot breakfasts was the main thing they used to do then!? Why had they stopped?
James [the charity manager and S's boss] looked to me like he was on the moral back foot now: ... and if we give them meals for free, he was saying, then they will just use the money they save on drugs and alcoh.... [he'd forgotten about S who was standing right next to him as he defamed every Poorly Housed Soul in the Land by this ignorant council-grant-friendly tripe (and James had no idea that I was one of "them" too)]
[I don't have a drugs and alcohol problem by the way, nor any other antisocial disease for that matter]
[James had previously admitted that he would not be able to afford to employ S when he graduated from his apprenticeship in the new year - it was an apprenticeship to no job - not enough council spending on social services to hope to employ S: so, in truth, not an "apprenticeship" in the traditional sense at all!!]
But the problem was really much simpler than any of this stuff...
You see the council does not pay for food, just for beds and for professional social services like case workers to "intervene" with people like S and me, ie they pay for James's salary [plus overheads].
So if James pays out his overheads for free food, then his wages must be cut [or S must be made redundant].
Or what if James can win lots of xmas donations!?... then who knows, maybe he will be able to throw in a Christmas lunch or the occasional continental breakfast for a few lucky tramps...
But this is not where the heart of the problem lies.
This is a money trap and morality trap of our own making. It doesn't have to be like this!
The invalid elephant in the room is nothing to do with preventing pesky alcoholics from using their food money for drink and all that social engineering bollocks...
It is the presumption that you have to give every person who knocks on your door something for nothing. A free lunch and a free bed.
The invalid idea is that this has to be: A Charity.
A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with Bill and his friend Ricky in the library, at the table they usually frequent [it's right next to the radiator].
I've come to be friends with Bill and Ricky over the past couple of years as a new local resident here and fellow library user - I care about them and we enjoy each others company. But only now did I feel I could ask: Ricky! Where are you sleeping tonight?
[Ricky is very quiet and submissive to Bill, and Ricky is usually in with his scruffy holdall with a well worn sleeping bag bulging out of it - I had guessed before that he was in a lodging where he was not allowed to stay in days, perhaps]
In a doorway out there, Ricky said, gesturing to the square outside the window.
I was stunned. Christmas was coming up and in this town everything closes. I know from my own journey that finding "safe" indoors alternatives when you don't have your own place to go back to, and finding sources of cheap hot water and cheap food, is VITAL [the cold nearly killed me one night - some 2 1/2 years ago now].
And I had been fearful of winter - yes, scared!
Streetsleeping in spring thru autumn was tough enough [and definitely *not* a camping holiday - even if you do have a tent!] - fear of winter was one of the things that drove me back to where I am now [legally "homeless" but very well housed by comparison to my previous and Ricky's present housing "solution"]
[I felt guilty; and I grieved for Ricky]
That evening I went out to find Ricky. I was thinking I could bring him a kettle of hot water or a flask or something. [Just a cup of hot tea at night is a lifesaver.]
I searched the places I would have picked as my "house" for the night. Safe spots, sheltered from the wind and the rain. Reclusive to evade aggressive tramp haters. Somewhere near a toilet; iceland; the library...
I found Ricky in a betting shop. [He wasn't gambling - just pretending.] It was warm. Safe. I saw they had toilets and they were open till 10 pm. And they gave out free hot tea.
I was relieved. Ricky was OK. [for that night]
But Christmas was coming, and the bookies and iceland and all other places would be closed for 2 days.
The next week I came back, and I met Bill and Ricky again and we chatted. I had come with half an idea by this time. Why couldn't we get some space - at the church maybe - that we could use as a temporary night shelter. A popup hostel!?
Maybe we could do a deal - if the church needs some handyman jobs doing then they might pay Ricky and me £10 per hour say and they could rent us a space on the floor for £10 per night, say. And we could staff the "hostel" ourselves.
We talked on this but blockage after blockage kept coming up.
I was getting frustrated and tried to simplify this down - to get something started, no matter how small.
Bill uses Greggs 7am for a bacon roll and tea - £2.60 [unaffordable for Ricky (and me) as a staple]. What if I made breakfast and we each chipped in for the shopping - £1 for a full breakfast. Would they come round mine tomorrow!? Ricky immediately put his coins on the table. There's my pound, he said, proudly.
It is at this point where I revealed my own hand - I was unable to offer this. It is not my kitchen. I am fearful I might lose my own lodgings if I were to invite a known "tramp" to breakfast.
This is the source of my own guilt. I know what it is like to be in Ricky's shoes, yet I act like all the other homesteaders when I am on the other side of the fence.
I wanted - we all want, I think - a neutral ground for this shared community thing.
So the popup soup kitchen idea was born.
What if we just each bought some packet soup and then arranged to meet at a neutral place - a bench in the street perhaps - and I would bring a kettle of hot water. Ricky could scavenge a paper cup from somewhere...
Our plan was hatched. And we made it an experiment, just for fun, to see if we could do it this lunchtime. [life is very immediate on the street].
The neutral place? Where? Undercover - it's sunny but cold. Hey!! We could do it here in the library [the library encourages picnickers at the reading tables]. Hey!! I could plug the kettle in here!! Hey!! the library has a kitchen - we could use theirs!! [obvious things are only obvious when you are forced to see them].
I asked the library lady - she was warm and affectionate - she would be happy to arrange for the lunchtime staff to boil a kettle for us [as we would not be allowed to use the kitchen ourselves].
So Ricky and I split up to go shopping. I went to waitrose and bought an Essential box of 4 instant soup sachets - 99p - and a discounted pack of 6 bread rolls - 75p. I also went home to borrow a couple of mugs from my landlord's kitchen [I had a hunch Ricky might draw a partial blank on his errand].
12:30 I returned to the library. Ricky and Bill were already seated there. My prediction was correct: Ricky had nothing brought but excuses.
You can lead a horse to water.. I mocked, carefully, smiling. Bill chimed in. Ricky took it happily.
And I plonked my picnic bag on the desk. I've got enough for both of us!!, I said proudly.
So we moved to a spare table and used a free paper [Mature Times] as a tablecloth. I gave the receipt to Ricky and we worked out the individual cost of each item exactly - 25p per soup sachet, 13p per roll.
After we had cleaned up [the librarian did give us hot water as promised, very warmly, plus volunteered us 2 spoons to stir the soup] I overheard Ricky exclaim happily to Bill: I've just had soup for 25p!!
Ricky bought the remaining 2 soup sachets off me - he was inspired: I can make soup in the betting shop!, he exclaimed, and they have big paper cups there!! He was inspired - a man on a self-help mission now. [And this made Julian very, very happy indeed!]
I think this popup soup kitchen worked for a number of reasons.
1. No one's homefulness or houserichness was violated - actually it was extended, as the alfresco kitchen/dining space we created added to Ricky's houserichness [a house is not necessarily an integral building, as, for "homeless" people, we all assemble hybrid "housing" from many settings to complete our own unique flavour of a 24x7 personal housing solution]
2. The money-cost was affordable. Ricky *does* have food money (£5 to £6 per day on avg). But he/we must use it very economically. 40p for a big soup and a roll is fine! £1.50 for a hot tea - forget it. £2 for a wholesome hot 900 cal meal [in a place open to ALL - ie not one branded as a homeless last resort] is spot on [but you try to find it!!].
3. The dignity-cost was affordable. Ricky owed no moral debt to me, nor I to him. I was not "above" him in hosting the "hotel". We both paid our way and cooperated - worked - to make it happen. It was more like a family and nothing like a church mission or a charity.
4. The enterprise was feasible. The space was operated at an effective rate and its use was socially acceptable to the community. All wages were paid [in kind] at a living wage. We left the space as we found it. [the library did "donate" the space but this could have been paid for for the time we occupied it - eg £10 rent per 24 hours - approx 1p per minute - to be sat at a table with access to a kettle and tap water]
I returned the following week to Ricky's manor. I had temporary lodgings in his town again. This was Christmas week. On the day, the town was predictably shut.
I was fine, having shopped at waitrose the day before and being currently endowed with a proper house and a proper kitchen to treat as my own. But I was concerned for Ricky. I wasn't sure if he had gone for help to the winter charity as he had said he might...
I walked the deserted town on that freezing Christmas lunchtime. [I had all but given up my self-interested priorities by this time, and was planning to cook us both a meal somehow]
I found Ricky in the open market square as I rounded a corner shop past a local woman and lad who were standing outside the shop door staring at the scene ahead.
Across from the shop door, a few people were gathered round a bbq grill. [The woman muttered as I walked on past her towards the gathering: Someone should call the police!]
As I crossed the road and approached, I was effusively greeted [a very important way to treat any homeless person when you first meet them] by an unshaven smiling short, slight man. Come in!!! Come in, he greeted me. Come and join us!!
There was quite a feast: 2 large turkeys, all the trimmings, soup, booze. And good equipment: trestle tables, big trays of precooked foods, paper plates, huge soup boiler, huge water kettle, huge charcoal grill -- everything you'd expect at a social bbq in fact. Only this wasn't that.
I chatted to the man - Glen, an out of work jockey from Zimbabwe - and mingled. [Ricky was silent stood eating next to me] And I asked who was organising it and Glen introduced me to a younger-looking man who was on a bit of a one-man mission, Brian.
I asked Brian why he did such a wonderful thing. He said: I was angry, I had all this stuff and I just decided to do it. [Brian had got the local Tesco manger to cough up the turkeys, and some others had chipped in extra food and equipment.] I explained I too was interested in building a grass-roots hostel and kitchen in the area.
Brian said he was told there were no homeless people around here, pointing out the blatant lie. But Brian's focus was actually on the poorest semi-working community here, not the homeless, he explained- the jockeys and stable workers supporting the million-pound stables and studs in the area.
I pressed Brian why he was motivated to do it. He said he had been down on his luck last year and that others had helped him out, so he wanted to do the same [his want so inspired he was driven to the strength of "anger"].
I declined Glen's offer to have some of the fare and I repeated this to Brian, saying that I could afford my own food so I would not take the donations of others out of respect. [but I sensed that this was not the perfect social grace for this setting - it set me apart from the group, as all the others were taking these gifts and this made it appear I was disapproving of them - I wasn't]
As I made to leave, I swapped contacts with Brian [he asked me if I was an off-duty policeman - I put him quickly at ease on that!] as I hoped we might collaborate going forward.
As I bade farewell to Glen [Ricky had already walked off to get his friends to come] more happy people arrived, and a child was happily sat on a plastic chair having been given hot soup with huge chunks of turkey breast thrown into it.
In this case, considering the same enterprise success criteria as before:
1. Brian's home was not violated but the market square became a squat and the local community [in the form of at least one ungracious woman] was not warm. However, Ricky's "home" and that of a good few others was extended, and this was in my view the greatest gift Brian made.
2. The money-cost was affordable to Ricky and co - it was free!
3. The dignity-cost was fine so long as everyone attending was in the same boat and conditioned to taking handouts. Brian is the friend of friends in this area, and so this *was* dignifying [as the gathering of a large extended family might be]. If a family is given a Christmas hamper from Tesco's out of the blue [unknown to the rest of the world], then every member within the family will feel no shame taking their fair share. But cheats would easily spoil this harmony on any grander scale. And realistically it necessarily will create and exacerbate social cliques and stigmas, as charity has always done.
4. The enterprise was not feasible. The effort Brian had to make to stage this was self-destructive to him. If the flow of donations is strong and consistent then a regular free service could happen. But any volatility would disrupt this. And patchy donations would result in patchy provision. And soon, a systematic way of distributing aid with justice would be needed to scale up this. And this is precisely what money is good for. Put simply, Brian could not stage this again the next day. [he didn't: I made Ricky his boxing day dinner (to be exchanged at cost for 50p) tho Ricky failed to turn up at our agreed meeting point at 7pm to collect it -- I don't know why!?)]
But I see no moral difficulty with all this. This is charity as it should be, I think. Brian has no livelihood to defend in this enterprise, so everyone involved is either giving in kind or time and has an equal standing in the organisation. There is no conflict of interest.
Vitally, Brian's spirit, to me, was pure and full of grace - he moved me. He was paying it forward to give back out of the graciousness of his own heart -- and making as little public attention about it as one could possibly do.
Where the trade has really worked here, I see, is for Brian. He is now emotionally even. He has given back.
To be rich enough to be afforded the privilege to be a giver rather than a receiver, is a very rich blessing indeed.
But to be aware and honest enough to recognise that Giving is *always* accompanied by the Taking Away of that very same Joy of Giving from your receiver [that greatest joy of unselfish, self-reliant giving to yourself], and that this might be, to some, in some circumstances, the most selfish and hurtful thing you could possibly do to them, and so would always require the most careful and informed thinking-through before blundering in, is - I now know for certain - a far, far greater blessing.
If your enterprise, be it a charity or otherwise, does not deliver this kind of dignity, then I'd say it's high time you changed it.
The houserichness scale www.flickr.com/photos/julianpartridge/9426531953
The homefulness scale www.flickr.com/photos/julianpartridge/9424330948
Purple robes hide many sins www.flickr.com/photos/julianpartridgeart/6522106769
The absurd estate agent www.flickr.com/photos/julianpartridge/9536869131
Ricky is not dead btw, nor is he wandering tearfully into the freezing cold New Year shadows for want of your aid or mine [I checked].
[I clarify this as I don't want to fall into the conventional trap of making this stuff always appear as some kind romance for the underdog and, by implication, a clear shame on you, Dear Reader, the better-off one, for not having already coughed up your "immoral riches" to fund my chosen worthy "underdog" cause (aka James's salary plus overheads)]
I am pragmatic [now] about my regard for Ricky [and for Bill and Glen and S... and everyone else on the planet for that matter]. Ricky is no fallen angel [he's a Cantankerous ol C-nt actually]. But I find him moral and good company - benign to be around [on my own terms]. As the Aussies would say: he's just Wally like you and me, worthy of a Fair Go.
The point I make about about "abusive" intervention [so generously funded by our councils] is that it carries with it the unavoidable presumption that I am "socially undesirable" -- the screening form they execute on you, the prospective tenant, performed as a charitable fee-for-service, drills and drills and drills (via a 1hr interview typically with an unpaid student intern) into every aspect of your private life and private history, and makes you expose every part of you to your interviewer and any future reader of this coerced "housing CV" of yours -- often the readers [like your future live-in house managers] may themselves be the types you might normally want to choose to stay well clear of, and the last people you'd want to give all your personal information to.
I said this directly to James in the talk and he immediately denied that association: No!, not "socially undesirable", he stressed, clearly taken aback. [I had made the point that when you rent from an agency they only vet your credit history and ask for 3 pay slips] But he went on: I need to protect my staff.
14 Jan 2014: Out of the blue, Ricky has just plonked a hot tea and a jam donut by me [I am working on the computer in the library right now] - he's just bought it from greggs with the same for himself and Bill! -- how good is that!! :)) Ricky wldnt take any money for it. [it's still not charity tho - more like mates buying each other a round in the pub --- bastard is now one hot tea and a jam donut up on me!! :))]
11 July 2014: Ricky has disappeared. It's been months since he's been in the library - last word was he left the housing he was allocated because of the bad behaviour in there: I think he just wasn't comfortable -- like moving into you new home and finding you have unfortunately acquired the Original Neighbours From Hell... only it's much worse at this end of the housing ''market'' --- your neighbour from hell is poking his face right into your bunk!! And I think Bill misses him - I seem to be Bill's jigsaw prodigy in the library now!
5 October 2014: Spotted Ricky twice in the Big City the other weeks. He's fine and doing the library act in another place. Definately houseless but possibly homerich-ish - doing what he's comfortable with. Thank god for libraries!
Ohh! And spotted that lady pretending to be a member of staff in warm places with seats - carrying the same old carrier bag -- that lady I saw doing the same in the winter of... when was it!? I was surfing YHAs... Oh yes: December 2011! She still alive - not sure about her homefulness tho! www.flickr.com/photos/julianpartridgeart/6522231275/