empty plate with bone, feeding the homeless

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Homelessness is an extremely complex issue that is rarely independent. It is something that many of us are  unsure of how to handle. We may feel called to do something, but what? That is the difficult part. We are told not to give people money because that can be used to fuel drug or alcohol addictions, but what about when all that person really wants is a bed in a night shelter and they just need a few pounds. Sometimes it can feel intimidating to speak with a homeless person, especially if your female and they are male. All too often it’s far easier to just walk on past with a polite nod or no eye contact at all. Well that just doesn’t cut it somehow. I always feel so dissatisfied with myself when I just walk past and I don’t think I am alone. I wanted to speak to someone who had some experience of helping the homeless and vulnerable in their community so I met up with  Esther, a third year Occupational Therapy student and member of Lansdowne Church. In her 1st and 2nd years of uni Esther was a volunteer with In Touch Christian Mission. They provide both practical and spiritual help to the homeless and those in need in Bournemouth.

I started by asking Esther what made her want to get involved. Before coming to uni she had not experienced helping homeless people in a structured way. Like many of us, she took the opportunity to do something new whilst at uni. She had wanted to try out helping the homeless for a long time and the levels of homelessness in Bournemouth multiplied this. Despite living close to Bristol (which has higher levels of homelessness) before coming to uni, Esther felt far more confronted by the issue than ever before when she arrived in Bournemouth. This is perhaps because now it was right on her doorstep. Living in the Lansdowne area of Bournemouth in her 1st year meant that Esther could see homeless people and prostitutes from her living room window. One Sunday morning at church the chap that heads the In Touch team up was being interviewed, it was then that she knew she needed to be involved and went straight up to him after the service to say she wanted in.

The average In Touch day

Even though Esther was never part of the initial set up team (she would join a bit latter) she was able to tell me a little about how it all runs. Twice a week volunteers set up from about 9am. Cooking is a big part of the job, as they prepare for 40+ homeless people who come and each receive several potions of food. Just before 11:45am is when Esther would get there as this is when those in need were allowed in. The room would be set up with bread, soft drinks and gospels on the table and everyone knew that there would be a short talk on a subject from the bible and a short prayer. Then the eating would commence. One of aspects Ester enjoyed was learning what the regular visitors liked and disliked on their plates, it was part of the process of getting to know them, their story. The visitors are allowed to take away portions of food too, either for later or for a friend who couldn’t make it. They are able to access essentials such as clean clothes,  sanitary products and toothpaste and brushes that they wouldn’t necessarily be able to get elsewhere.

“It was so eye-opening, you just wouldn’t expect it”.

Whilst the work of the volunteers keeping the operation running smoothly it also provides much needed support and conversation for the visitors. Some of them aren’t in deed of food but conversation. They had become so desperate for a friendly face and a listening ear. The times in which she was able to just sit, chat and get to know the visitors was Esther’s favourite part, hardly surprising given that she is training to be an OT.  I got her to tell me a little about some of the characters she could remember.

Beautiful, unique individuals

The first person Esther told me about was George*. George was a lawyer for whom everything was going swimmingly. He had a nice home and a girlfriend, he thought he was set. Then something went horribly wrong with a court case which meant he lost his job and struggled to find another. This meant he lost his house and as a result his girlfriend left him because he could no longer support the life they were leading. There are gaps in the story . We don’t know how that lead to living on the streets, but at one point he had found a hole in the ground to take shelter in and would use a tea light to see by.

Another man lost his whole world when a car crash took his wife and three children. He was unable to cope and became lost in a cloud of grief and depression. As a result everything else was lost and he was left on the streets.

Stories of almost over night, world-shattering events that render people homeless and  often hopeless were the real shockers. “It was so eye-opening, you just wouldn’t expect it”, she said.  Some stories are the sort that you know exist but don’t expect to be exposed to it necessarily. A sixteen year old girl would come in regularly with her mum. Both of them were known prostitutes. It was expected of the daughter to follow in her mother’s footsteps as this was the only path known to them. The abuse that that girl is likely to have experienced is unthinkable, my heart breaks just thinking about it. This is one of those cases where there are so many layers of poverty, not just financial. A poverty of love is much worse.

There were also some beautiful stories. Esther said one of the beauties of doing something like In Touch is seeing the people you have served out and about in town. It’s lovely to say hi after having built up a rapport with them over time. One of these people was Henry*. He was a chap who Esther had seen several times at In Touch bumped into him in the Bearpit Underpass. She had been in town and whilst there had popped into the free bookshop. Whilst there she felt prompted to pick up some Gospels of John. She stopped to speak with Henry and ended up having a really detailed conversation where he really opened up to her about the struggles he was going through. He told her that he had been trying out churches but just didn’t feel welcome or at home. Esther gave him one of the Gospels and he was so thankful because he had never held or owned a Bible. She then saw him a few months later at In Touch and he had gotten a job as a builder on the new Bournemouth University International College. He had been going to a church regularly and looked completely different, “incredible” she said. This was definitely one of her highlights of serving on the team.

Something to take away

When I asked Esther to describe her experience with In Touch in three phrases/words she said,” Eye-opening, humbling and a great opportunity for change”. she went on to conclude:

“I would highlight these people are just people, they all have values and likes and dislikes. They all have personalities and they all are completely different and beautifully unique. Doing In Touch has really helped me to recognise that and enjoy finding out people, their histories and their funny stories. I think our world had such a predisposition towards homeless people, thinks they’re worthless, useless people in society. Rejecting the homeless is rejecting what it means to love, to love our world the people in it. Something like In Touch gives us an amazing opportunity to do that”.

Do you feel called to do more for the vulnerable people of our society, particularly the homeless and poverty stricken? I hope that hearing Esther’s story shows you have easy it is to get involved and inspires you.

As some additional  information, below you will find the statistics for how many people applied for assistance because they were homeless in Bournemouth for the last five years January to March. It’s interesting to see how much it has increased over a fairly short time whilst the amount the council agree to house hasn’t risen proportionately. This is something I plan to find out more about because it intrigues me. The information for this visualisation was found on the Homeless Link website.

*Names have been changed.