Old school kindness

Last week I went to my tenth Tearfund UK project to do a final day of filming for the epic Ten Keys Project.

We were in Ilford, and we interviewed a man from the council.  I asked him to jot down his job description for me and it took 8 lines of my notebook.  (It wasn’t a large notebook, but still).  I asked him why he’s worked in the Housing Department of Redbridge council for twenty odd years.  And he said, self-deprecatingly, that it was because he was “old school”, meaning that he wanted to work to improve services in his community and make things better.  And stick at it.

We spoke to another guy in the Housing Department, because they were queuing up to praise the project we were filming, known as The Welcome Centre.  He said that there are a bunch of services working with people who are homeless, but what marks out this project is their persistent kindness, no matter how often people fall back into bad choices.  Rough sleepers are a hard group to work with, a fragile and often entrenched community who frequently resist support and certainly have no time for the bureaucracy of council services.

(To access help from the Housing Department you need ID and proof of eviction to get past reception.  It’s hard to get a nice letter from your wife explaining why she threw you out).

The Housing Department couldn’t get these people to come to them, so the department staff went to The Welcome Centre (which was set up by a local church).  They knew that the town’s rough sleepers felt safe and welcome there, so it was the only place they could go and talk to them and find ways to help them.  Having been to both of their buildings I can honestly say that I would choose the Welcome Centre every time as well.

The new Welcome Centre, funded by the government’s ‘Places of Change’ initiative

The project itself was brilliantly inspiring (staffed by some amazing women with fiery compassion and great wisdom) but I keep returning to those two men from the council.  They weren’t especially prepossessing or charismatic, probably just what you might imagine civil servants to look like.  But they were faithful.  They were in it for the long haul. They hadn’t been neutered by the bureaucracy of local government.  They were working away in overheated, decaying, depressing office blocks, amidst ever-increasing cuts, and they were keeping going, eager to find news ways to support people who are hard to help.  And they were championing this brilliant ray of light that is The Welcome Centre, trying to find them funding and to look for news ways to partner with them.

It reminds me David Hare’s play, Skylark, and some impassioned, angry words from the main character, Kyra (with some expletives removed):

You only have to say the words ‘social worker’…’probation officer’… ‘counsellor’… for everyone in this country to sneer.  Do you know what social workers do?  Every day?  They try and clear out society’s drains.  They clear out the rubbish.  They do what no-one else is doing, what no-one else is willing to do.  And for that, oh *****, do we thank them? No, we take our own rotten consciences wipe them all over the social worker’s face, and say, ‘If –‘****! – ‘if I did the job, then of course if I did it…oh no, excuse me, I wouldn’t do it like that…’

I’m not owning up to being that angry on a regular basis, but there’s something ugly about the contempt we show for these kinds of jobs, how quick we are to dismiss, or critique. And there’s something tragic about how society is moving further away from valuing them (kids only want to be glamour models and footballers now, apparently).  I don’t remember ever having the first clue what a social worker did or how you might become one.

So today’s post it talking up the people who work for good in the council.  The people who sit on committees.  The people who work in local government to make things better.  The social workers and support workers.  What honourable work you do.

There’s something to be said for old school kindness.

Hope on the final frontier (the wild west of England)

I decided not to come back to London (despite all my protestations in favour city living).  Well, not for a few more days.

In fact, after leaving Devon, I moved further west and was ensconced for 48 hours in luscious Cornwall.

Cornwall, to me, is clotted cream and ice-cream and the Eden Project and the beach.  It’s best known and loved for holidays.  One of my friends and colleagues grew up by the beautiful beaches of Hayle (we actually holidayed at her family home last year which was idyllic) and she would love to live there still.  Only there is hardly any work.  Cornwall is one of the most deprived regions in Europe.  It even qualifies for poverty-related grants from the EU.

I went to hear stories from two great groups of people running projects in the region that are trying to push against the tide of increasing deprivation.  It’s a rough battle right now, with so many cuts.  We started out in Camborne, hosted by the seemingly indomitable vicar of the parish church, Mike Firbank.  He rocked up five years ago and started talking about how the church should be helping the community out.

On location with my photographer…(so glamorous)

Shortly afterwards a congregation member was in town for a meeting and nipped into the local public toilets.  He found a group of men huddled around the hand-driers, trying to keep warm, nowhere else to go.

Shocked and heart-sore, he knocked on the vicar’s door.  They talked.  And on Christmas Eve they opened the church hall for a Christmas dinner for anyone with nowhere to go.  And the doors have never really shut since then.

They called themselves DISC, which stands for Drop In and Share Centre, and it’s a simple idea.  They run a drop in centre when anyone is welcome – those often excluded elsewhere by nature of their addictions and behaviour, or those who are just a little lonely. When people arrive they’re offered a cup of tea and a chat, and some help if they want it.  They don’t prescribe specific kinds of problems they will solve, or promise to know what the answer is.  But they will try, and they will search out people who have more expertise and experience than they might.

It’s a safe, stable place.  A shelter, a rock, a hiding place.  Somewhere you can trust.  The staff’s stories are of long, difficult journeys taken with people, of disappointments and heart-breaking relapses and of beautiful steps towards change and hope.

One of the things they run is a foodbank.  They provide emergency food as a stop-gap for families who find themselves suddenly in the lurch.  Their benefits don’t come through, or change, and there is no income for a few weeks.  It’s inscrutable how one of the richest countries in the world can still leave its own people starving.  And just recently working families have starting turning up at the foodbank because they just can’t afford to feed their kids.  It doesn’t bode well for the year ahead, and Mike reckons the worst is yet to come.

DISC are suffering from all the cuts.  They’re having to scale back, even as the needs are getting more critical.  I want to turn it around, I want the church across this country to step in and step up and join in, even as I know that so many of them are on their own journeys deeper into all of this already.  I want to shake the bureaucrats making the cuts and make them see what it’s doing to people.

I ask Lorna, the Centre Manager, how they keep going, and keep hoping that things will improve.  She shakes her head.  We see train crashes, she says, we see them all the time.  We see people in crisis.  But we’re there at the other side of it too.  The crash isn’t the end of the story; we’re there to see every tiny step forward that they take afterwards.  And that’s where hope becomes something real.

And to put it in their own words, here’s a short video they made of Mike introducing their work:

A film showing there is more to Buxton than the water

To break up the theatrical reflections, here’s a little film I made a month or so ago about some beautiful, wonderful people I met who run a project in Buxton.  Before I went, I knew nothing about Buxton except the water they bottle. Now I am planning my next trip… The couple who lead it have live in their main care home with their family for more than a decade, totally sharing their lives with the people they’re trying to serve.  So inspiring. Enjoy.

(You can find out more in my other blog about my visit here)

Good News Family Care from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

Healed by the hills of Derbyshire

Why has nobody told me about the Peak district before? All I knew about it was that Elizabeth Bennett was travelling in Derbyshire when she bumped into Mr Darcy at Pemberley, and I remember all those romantic shots of Kiera Knightley standing on a big rock looking at the hills.  But even those happy connotations failed to do justice to how flippin beautiful it is.

I dragged myself out of bed on Monday morning *before 6am* to get the first train of the day to Buxton, and spent the first hour of the journey asleep. But then, oh my, how beautiful the countryside became.  And, even more excitingly, we went out to a real farm when we arrived – one with 500 chickens (I didn’t mention my minor chicken phobia, which is actually more of a beak phobia) and 3 horses.  And no running water or electricity.

We were there because the farm is part of a project called Good News Family Care.  People from the local community can do skills training there in animal husbandry, woodwork, woodland management, drystone walling (all of these would be new skills for me, although of varying levels of usefulness in the city). But the main vision of the place is to provide space for healing and growth (and I feel like I experience a bit of that myself being in such amazing surroundings).  A lot of the people who come along, who connect with the project, have been battered and bruised by life (and some by their partners).  Most of them have no experience of being outside of an urban context. So whether someone wants to come and acquire new life skills, or just watch the horses, they’re more than welcome.

Horses in the yard

The other site they own which we visited was Charis House, a converted hotel now offering supported housing for vulnerable women and children, and families who need help in working through serious problems.

We spend the day with Hazel who set the project up with her husband about 18 years ago, having dreamt about it for the 14 years before that.  For all of the past 18 years they have lived in a flat on the top floor of Charis House, alongside all of the vulnerable and chaotic families who have passed through. Before that they lived in the countryside. I’m seriously impressed by their commitment, and their stamina, but they’re adamant that there have been more highs than lows. (Hazel tells us the hardest thing to give up was her goats).

I meet a 47 year old woman who everybody tells me has changed beyond recognition since being at Charis House. Some 17 years ago she came with her husband and four children.  Her husband had a drug habit and would sell her to his friends for sex to make money to support it.  She had such problems with anger she would lock up her children and refuse to feed them.  But today she is bubbling over with enthusiasm, telling me how her life has changed, and how Jesus has changed it. She tells me an incredible story of how God healed her blindness (she’d been blind in one eye since birth).

What I love about this place, and in fact so many of the UK projects I’ve visited recently, is the depth of spirituality underpinning and threading through them.  They’re not just people doing great social work which is motivated by their Christian faith.  They are people who are deeply committed to giving others more than a helping hand.  They want to express the depth and breadth of God’s love to people, believing that it is the only thing that is enough to meet them in the deepest place of need.  Nothing is forced on their guests but there is an integrity and honesty about the fact that they believe that there is more to life than just meeting physical needs.  Every morning the team meets and prays for everyone staying in the house and for everything they will be engaging with that day.  It’s not something most people see, but you notice the effect.  There is a sense of peace and trust and faith and togetherness in the midst of all the chaos and pain that they encounter.

So Derbyshire isn’t just good for a holiday and literary sightseeing, it’s also good for the soul.  I’m now trying to plan another trip…

Loving Green Pastures

On this strange day of extreme weather – bright sunshine/hailstones alternating, at least in Woking – I have met some brilliant people with an extreme response to homelessness.

Pastor Pete

Pastor Pete (a dead ringer for Santa) says his family had always taken in people who were in dire straits throughout his many years as a pastor (he says this as if it’s normal and everyone does it).  So when he moved to Southport, aged 57, it was no surprise that he was moved to practical action when confronted by the rough sleepers living under the pier and on the golf course.  He and his wife converted their garage into a small flat where 3 people could sleep.  They bought a caravan to house another four, and invited their new friends to take over their spare rooms.  They overflowed onto the church floor.  It was messy but it seemed to be working.

But the environmental officer from the local council was less than impressed with their health and safety standards and said it had to stop.

So then their friendly local council Chief Exec invited them in to talk about bidding for some European funding for regeneration which would benefit those who were homeless.  Pastor Pete and his crew helped them out and the council won £9m, £900,000 of which was earmarked for homeless services.  But somehow none of the money ended up benefiting the ‘roofless’ contingent – the ones most in need of help.

Pastor Pete was discouraged and was blunt with God.  Then one morning soon after, he and some friends were meeting for their daily prayer and Bible study, and read the story of the Good Samaritan.  Pastor Pete was struck for the first time by the fact that the Samaritan took complete responsibility for someone he barely knew.  He felt that God was saying to him “I never asked you to go and beg from the government. I’m asking you to take responsibility.”

Pastor Pete had saved £6000 for a small pension.  Another lady from the church mortgaged her house to release £24,000, and Pete’s son committed £100 a month from his wages.  With that they bought a flat for some of the rough sleepers.  And that was where it all started.

Today they own properties across Southport and around the UK, working with 29 partners and housing over 400 people. Long-term “rooflessness” no longer exists in Southport. They worked exclusively in Southport for five years and then someone from The Times wrote an article about them called ‘God’s Estate Agent’.  From then on calls flooded in, as churches and charities wanted to meet them and find out more.  Shortly after that, a prison chaplain from Stoke with a passion for helping support ex-offenders when they got out of jail asked Pete and his team if they’d buy them a couple of houses.  So they did.

I find it totally overwhelming that these people are so bold, full of faith and generous with the little they have.  How incredible that they just go around buying houses for projects who want to house the homeless (I should say that do it in a responsible way, and give a lot of relational support).  And they’ve accrued some serious nouse.  They have a sound financial model that makes them sustainable and means they’re not dependent on government.  They invite people with money to invest it with them for a 5% return, which helps them raise house deposits.  Then the mortgage is repaid through the housing benefit payments which the tenants or clients receive. (Their website probably explains it better).

I loved meeting Pastor Pete – he was brimming over with amazing stories, and had a string of brilliant quotations from “The Book” which clearly act as landing lights for him in all the challenges of working with people in chaotic circumstances.  Although their name, Green Pastures (from psalm 23), wasn’t his idea. “I hate naming things,” he says.  “When we had a shop we called it ‘shop’.”

If you have some money you’re saving I would heartily recommend investing it with these guys…You can find out more here.