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November 6, 2023

Orwell Prize: Learning from Jackson

Last year we partnered with the Orwell Foundation to offer the Orwell Prize for Reporting Homelessness. With the inaugural prize being awarded back in June to Freya Marshall Payne and Daniel Lavelle, both of whom wrote about their own experiences of homelessness, we are pleased to share a selection of entries by people with personal experience of homelessness or about personal stories of homelessness over the coming weeks. 

Learning from Jackson

By Anthony Buckley 

Jackson wanted to describe the sudden change of weather at the end of November: ‘I knew it was getting cold because when I woke up the inside of my nose was frozen.’ He was explaining, not complaining. He and I had got to know each other quite well in previous months. I had learned that he had been brought up in a town where I used to teach; he had not attended my school, but I remembered teachers from his, and we were soon reminiscing.

I contacted one of the teachers, now retired, who kindly sent his regards (having not seen him for 35 years). Jackson’s school days had been turbulent (and short), but he remembered the teacher with respect and affection. The fact that I knew him placed me in a new light; I was no longer the slightly disorganised bemused local city-centre vicar, where the church doors are open, but part of the team, the fellowship, that long line of individuals who had taken an interest in Jackson since he was a toddler. 

A frozen nostril is a different reference point from realising one might have to scrape the ice off the windscreen. Why had Jackson’s journey been so different to so many of his contemporaries, some of whom I had taught in the same town? I am currently a vicar in a church whose tradition has been for many years that the doors are open. Many people come in, and among the tourists, the tired, the seekers and the pray-ers there are some who are currently homeless and there are some who have shelter but very, very, little money. 

The conversations vary greatly, in part depending on the level of alcohol and drug abuse. Jackson is free of these addictions and is thus reliable and chatty. Others are fine when sober but unreachable when drunk. Occasionally things feel slightly edgy. A few weeks ago I was attacked, but the lady, although strong, was too drunk to do much harm. But generally, if people are willing, and given space, to tell their story, then the relationships become positive. 

There are friendships and camaraderie on the streets, as well as violence, theft and mistrust. It is rather like any other community (although in other communities the emotions may be expressed in subtler ways). To leave the street community to begin life again in a single room far from the city-centre can feel a lonely and challenging prospect. It can feel safer to stay within the known cycle of existence than step out into a new chapter.

When it is very cold the City Council announces SWEP (Severe Weather Emergency Protocol), and people impacted by homelessness are housed dormitory-style. Churches Together run a night shelter in the winter months, food banks do great work. Showers are made available. There is a great deal of care available; this is one of the reasons why people experiencing homelessness come to the city, but in the long term it is better for some to return to their hometowns, where their own local authorities can do more for them. 

The combined efforts of volunteers and local authority often work well. Jackson is personable and alert, and responded well to help offered. It did not take long for a room to be found and then help was needed to furnish it. We had a rug at church no longer quite necessary and it thus found a new home. 

I have not met anyone who chose to be homeless. A couple of mistakes, a breakdown in a relationship, a landlord whose patience has run out, a storming out of a shared flat, and, after a month-or-two on friends’ floors, it is the porch of the shop. These porches are guarded possessively. Some will not leave their site to sleep in a shelter for a night lest they have lost it by the morning. Some avoid dormitory-style shelters because they like their privacy. Some ask for money, (but not as many as those who are in accommodation and for whom the benefits cannot match the bills by the end of the month). 

They think the church is rich (which it is nationally, but not locally), and assume I am rich. And I have to admit that I am. Vicars are not paid very much but I do not have to worry about food or shelter. I can have a shower when I want. I have more than one set of clothes. I can afford soap. I am rich. 

Money given to those on the streets is not always spent wisely. The C S Lewis response to a friend questioning why he gave money to a needy person was: “Yes, he may spend it on drink, but if I keep it, I may spend it on drink!” rightly causes a smile but, as Lewis knew personally very well, the situation was more complex. And, given stronger and cheaper alcohol, and the effects of drugs, especially cannabis, addictions are much more complex 60 years on. 

Those who come in are seldom hungry (although some are, which is easy to fix) and they know I do not have time to queue with them at the M&S underwear department, nor to wait with them for a bus ticket to Milton Keynes. They want the money, perhaps partly for the dignity of being able to choose one’s own socks without a cautious clergyman standing nearby. Eric Berne’s commendation of aspiring to Adult-Adult relationships wherever possible often feels relevant. 

There are judgements every day as to whom I will trust and whom I will not. A gentleman last week pulled down his trousers so I could see the state of his underwear; he is quite pushy anyway and I said no. If Jackson said he was in similar need, I would say yes, but then is that simply because of our shared past? Do I now have favourites? Perhaps, but I think there is more to my instinctive answer; Jackson wants to move on. 

My guess is that I get it wrong, am taken for a ride, one time in five or six. I think I prefer my misjudgments and naivety to be sometimes exploited rather than always saying no. But I am conscious of the dangers of encouraging dependency or addiction, and experienced friends caution me to be more careful. 

The physicality of the encounters is new to me. I happen to be the tallest and heaviest in our church (the diet starts next year) and I will sometimes be asked, by staff or volunteers, to be present, partly because I am a priest, and that can help, but also because of my size. A few weeks ago in the street outside the church a distressed angry gentleman asked me: “Are you squaring up to me?” (The police were already in attendance). I said “No” (Which was not quite true, and we were nose to nose; I was in the way, and would not move, because he had expressed an interest in beating someone up.) 

Things began to calm, one of his friends told him it might not be a good look to hit a vicar in front of a policeman. We chatted frostily, then amicably. As we talked, I learnt about his pain and protectiveness at the suffering of a family member. There is quite a lot of anger on the streets; his feelings had come from a good heart but had been inappropriately expressed. 

And much does come from a good heart. Recently I was about to close the church when a very drunk friend appeared and aggressively demanded to be allowed in to sit for a moment and look at our wooden cross. We negotiated and I said it needed to be brief. He said he had seen his daughter that morning (he is allowed to visit once a month) and was now so sad that he had been drinking ever since, and he was suicidal. 

We agreed that his sadness at not seeing his daughter was evidence that he is a loving parent and that the worst thing he could do for her was kill himself. I know him a little and did not think he was suicidal (if I had, extra help would have been found), but he needed to cry and needed to hear it named that he loved his children, and they loved him. Because he had wanted to see the cross, I asked if I could say a prayer for him, and so we did. 

Our collection box was broken into. I know who did it, because some in the homeless community have told me and are furious: they feel this is an organisation that is on their side. He boasted about his gains (probably less than £5, we empty it regularly) and they felt he was “well out of order”. He has not returned, and the box has since been made more secure. I would like him to come back and we could talk it through, but think his friends’ reaction has frightened him off. Various episodes, representing countless daily encounters. 

The church is for the city, council, businesses, universities, congregation, tourists, local visitors, and all those in the parish, including those who sleep in the porches. I am not well qualified for this role; as is obvious from the anecdotes above, I have only small experience, and no expertise. But George Orwell was good at describing how the ordinary person (or animal) might feel in the midst of a situation they do not quite grasp. And thus I am encouraged simply to try and express how things feel from my very ordinary perspective. (Orwell, like his fellow First World War-generation writers, Tolkien and Lewis, notably honoured the ordinary, as well as all three sometimes choosing fantasy as a means of saying what they wanted to say. If I were braver, I might have tried the same.)

I am unlikely to share anything that will be new to readers, but some familiar themes may be worth rehearsing. The doors may always be open but it is relationships and respect that are transformative; this means having people present. The building is not quite enough on its own. Staff and volunteers are skilled in their courtesy and conversations (often much better than me). Using an old-fashioned title, as the Parson, the Person, of the Parish, I am there, too: representing and serving all people, from the professor to the drunk, from the tourist to those experiencing homelessness. 

Conversations that bring dignity mean listening seriously; when we listen we usually find a connection, either to our own past or to something shared, as with Jackson. Sometimes people are only used to offering the quick, demanding, well-practised soundbite as they seek help from a new person. To be given time (and challenge) to tell their story properly can feel different, and another conversation begins. 

Communication breeds connectivity which breeds community, and once someone feels they belong, their story can begin a new chapter. If in need it is so much easier to begin to move forward when we know someone is walking alongside us, to be in a community where we can be encouraged, literally given courage, to hold on and to press on. People experiencing homelessness have their own community, but it is sometimes fractured and intense because of the complex emotional, mental and addictive undercurrents. Homelessness is not only about not having a physical shelter, it is also about not being part of a community where one feels at home. 

Someone expressed this last week, when they described themselves as “psychologically homeless”, and this was a need to be met as much as any other. And for some (not all) their visiting the church is because of their own spiritual journey. The drunk friend wanted to sit and look at the cross. Yesterday a new person appeared, we had a conversation about food, shelter and his story, and he then wanted a prayer. For others it is less explicit, but people affected by homelessness have been welcomed here for nearly a thousand years. 

This is a space where it has constantly been said that each person is known, loved and valued, and people find this helps it to be a place of hope. Few people, of any background, find change easy. It takes patience, determination and humility to stick with the system, to turn up to appointments, to be on the waiting list for housing. It takes determination to stay clear of self-destructive habits, to follow things through. 

Perhaps we expect too much determination from those who have never had an opportunity to learn how to do this, or who have never seen this modelled. Perhaps we are equally weak at learning how to deal with deep regrets. Conversations about receiving and giving forgiveness, for ourselves and for others, are frequent. This is a place where forgiveness and reconciliation are often discussed; emotional and spiritual health all feed into issues of mental health, guilt can be as disabling as poverty. The support needs to be practical. One friend comes in and watches me search for accommodation for him on my laptop. He has no computer skills of his own; the world is increasingly internet-based, and he lacks the confidence and skill. Others really do need new socks, or would love a proper shower with soap and shampoo. 

The central practical question is wider: whether society has the willingness and capacity to provide safe and comfortable physical shelter for all. Alongside that is the challenge: are we able to build community as much as we build houses and flats? With uninformed disregard for the consequences (a feature of many stories) 35 years ago Jackson got himself into a situation where he had to leave school. He looks back with regret, but knows himself well and understands that he was a deeply unsettled child, flailing around in his search for identity and belonging. 

Perhaps society did not quite have the resources and time to be alongside him effectively in the next chapter, his late teens and early twenties. But the spark is still there, and he does not want to give up. I knew it was getting cold because when I woke up the inside of my nose was frozen. Next winter, we hope it will be different.

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