to "Occasional Pieces"

Only a cup of soup

"Do I have to say a prayer for this?" the young fellow asked when the Simon Community volunteer handed over a cup of soup. "No!" came the reply.

Remarkably (to my mind) several Simon Community outreach workers known to me are not church-goers. Where on earth, I wonder, do they get their strength from, and the perseverance to keep going day after day? They show compassion and selflessness of a kind equal to anything one would hope to meet in somebody who claims to love and draw strength from the Lord Jesus. And, of course, as non-church-goers they do resemble the man after whom their Community is named: Simon of Cyrene. He was not a Christian, just a casual Jerusalem tourist forced to help carry Jesus’s cross.

Years ago a preacher made a big impression on me when he spoke of a prominent clergyman in 18th century London who, in his Will, left his estate to ‘the undeserving poor’. Plenty of people support the deserving poor, he declared, so his money was destined for the other sort.

That other sort are the people the Simon Community help. They are not easy. ‘A chaotic life-style’ is the phrase used of them frequently by Homelessness Agencies. Nor are they just homeless. Many people, such as refugees or battered wives, are undeservedly homeless. Give such people a chance to get started again and they will take it. Simon Community clients, on the other hand, are often alcoholics or drug-dependent, living on the edge of the Law. Often, too, they are victims of severe abuse as children. They are now on skid row. How, then, can such people be helped to imagine and come to believe that they, too, matter, and are loved, and deserve respect from the rest of us fellow-citizens? It requires an awful lot of devoted patience.

That is why the Simon Community volunteers have my unstinting admiration. They actually befriend rough-sleepers non-judgementally, whereas for anybody with deep-rooted middle-class prejudices it can be hard work just trying to hold a conversation with a Simon Community client.

On the other hand, if one of them asked me if he were expected to say a prayer for the cup of soup on offer, I hope I would be prepared to reply: "No. You don’t have to say a prayer for this. But I am saying one for you (and also for myself)."

July 2003

Frustrated! — feelings of a part-time (small) charity volunteer

 

“Every Wednesday is different,” says our Development Co-ordinator. Maybe. But on this second Wednesday of September, in addition to our normal routines, we were not delivering furniture to a client in Middleton, nor collecting second-hand clothes from a benefactor in Bramhope, nor detouring with a client via Lawnswood CID to sign the bail register, etc. Such non-routine activities are positively interesting.

No. On this particular Wednesday our van wouldn’t start. Flat battery. It had drained overnight following the soup-run because of a faulty courtesy-light — a fault that had occurred before. “Unscrew the bulb” I suggested. “No”, came the answer, “it’s needed when we’re giving out things at the soup-run.” And wouldn’t you guess: the emergency battery provided by the garage also turned out to be flat. So: re-plan the morning. Using private cars, the clothes-sorting team would drive to Holbeck while I looked for the garage in Harehills to get the battery re-charged.

And whether it’s logical or not, these petty frustrations somehow felt as if they were all a direct consequence of no longer being able to afford the (much increased) rent on our former Mabgate premises.

When the Headingley St Columba Newsletter last carried a piece about the Leeds Simon Community (“Only a cup of soup”), it was two years ago. A lot has changed in the meantime. Two whole generations of full-time client support-workers have done the job and moved on. Then, we were just moving into a new base in Mabgate and getting ready to appoint the excellent Development Worker who has anchored our activities admirably ever since. Now, the funding from Trusts has largely run out, and we are suffering the pains of cutting back.

Thanks to Emmaus, we have both storage space for blankets, an excellent base from which to deliver the Tuesday soup-run, and a secure compound for the van. Thanks to the White Rose Charity Initiative, we have ample space for clothes storage. Thanks to the Sisters of Charity, we have a secure room to house our telephone, computer and files. So we are able to continue the day-to-day work, albeit living with uncertainty nearly as great as some of our clients.

Is there still a need for direct work amongst rough sleepers? — “After all” (you may be thinking) “didn’t the Government just recently announce that annual rough sleeping figures for 2005 show a 75% reduction since 1998, down from 1850 to 459?” Indeed they did. But to us at Leeds Simon Community, the scale of this apparent reduction looks absurd. At the last official headcount in Leeds (March), the number of rough sleepers recorded was 2. Just six weeks later our volunteers, with greater knowledge of where to look, located 15. Last August (summer weather) we worked with as many as 33.

What does Leeds Simon Community need? At the moment it is mainly finance, to ensure that our full-time volunteer workers get paid the minimum wage. For their commitment to befriending men and women on skid row they deserve unqualified admiration. Their basic job is to establish relationships of trust with our clients, non-judgmentally, helping them to re-integrate. Apart from finance, we are only too pleased to be offered blankets. — We gladly collect. With heartfelt thanks.

October 2005

 

Simon on the Streets