These are passages written by Peter, a participant from The Welcome Centre in Ilford.
I first met Nick and Olly at The Welcome Project, a day-centre for homeless people. I remember putting all the chairs together in a circle, waiting in anticipation for something that would bring a bit of colour into our daily routine. I looked around; my “colleagues” come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Different flavours from different parts of the world, ending up in this strange little place, creating a unique mixture unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We’re so different, yet so similar in many ways.
When I first got to Ilford, I was astonished by the ethnic diversity of this place. I sat down on a bench, looking around and counting the people walking by, only to see how long I have to wait before I find someone who actually looks like an Englishman. I mean, we’re in Greater London, right? The 27th guy looked promising, although for all I know, he could’ve been Polish, or came from one of the Baltic countries, a lot of them find a home here, too.
Not everyone seems too keen to participate, but that’s understandable. This life is exhausting, and having to do something strange and new can seem like just another burden to carry. One of the support workers sits down amongst us, smiling encouragingly, so I smile back – I feel she needs support, too. I see a new face, jovial man with a beard, well-dressed, obviously not homeless. He has an open body-language, and looks to be more interested in us than the project itself. As I learned later, he’s the counsellor of the day-centre, and became a very important cornerstone in my personal journey over the next few months.
Finally Olly starts talking about the reason they came. I doubt everybody understands him, even though he speaks “BBC” English, no accent, articulates very clearly. He would like us to sum up our experiences in a few sentences about our first memories of this area, and the impact of leaving our former homes and coming here, to Ilford. He’s asking for the impossible, of course. On one hand, people who can sum up their thoughts into “elevator pitches” efficiently, rarely end up on the street. On the other hand, we tend to live in the present: where will the next meal come from? Where can we take a shower? How do I get new shoes instead of the broken ones on my feet? Will I be able to sleep at the same place tonight? Future and past goes to the bottom of the priority-list real fast.
One of the Polish guys finds a connection with Nick, who’s been sitting in silence so far. Apparently they have similar roots; Nick’s ancestors lived close (well, close enough…) to where my Polish friend is coming from. He seizes the opportunity, a moment to share, a moment to shine. Soon enough they’re knee-deep into pictures of sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, mementos from a time when life was simple.
Olly keeps looking in my direction – he looks so out-of-place with his carefree attitude and that ponytail on top of his head. Time to live up to the promise of that earlier smile, so I rise to the challenge: I share my story about counting the people walking by, up to the first “Englishman”. He seems fascinated by it, and asks me more questions. What do I miss the most from my old country? Hmm, not much, to be honest, but reading novels in my native language certainly sticks out as a prime example. Reading them in English however, is a new sensation to me, so I have something to replace what I’ve lost.
It’s such a struggle, trying to remember the details of that afternoon. (Or was it in the morning?) I know I caught the attention of the counsellor, but I have no idea what his questions were, let alone my answers. I know there were at least 10 of us sitting there, but the faces melted into others, from other group meetings, at other times. Nick still hasn’t said much. Sitting there, solid as a rock, with the posture of a silent bodyguard, but his eyes tell me he’s just as involved in this as Olly. A well shaken down team, these two. One of the young guys, originally from Africa answering reluctantly about the differences and similarities between Ilford and his former home, going through the regular topics: weather, food, faces. The attention encourages him, so he talks more and more confidently. It’s his moment to shine.
I know there was a follow-up to this. Our stories reached others, theirs got back to us. Unfortunately I couldn’t attend this next meeting, but I have a little hope to take away from all this. I heard later that my little story made a woman think about her own concept of prejudice. I met the counsellor, and found an audience in him, someone to talk to about my problems lying so deep, feelings I couldn’t reach without guidance. I had my moment to shine.
People talk about a police raid starting in the area tonight, to move the homeless elsewhere. I wonder if I’ll still be able to sleep at the same place tonight…
Peter's Blog #2 ‘Blame’
May 10, 2017
I have my rucksack behind me, supporting my back as I’m partially sitting, partially laying down in one of London’s forgotten corners - typing this while the cars go by in front of me. The average Londoner will walk by with his head down here, focusing strictly on the pavement in front of himself. Occasionally a driver revs the engine of his tuned sportscar while passing by, honking the horn all the way throughout the tunnel, creating a thundering noise - probably thinking that it’s a good joke to make the lives of the less fortunate more miserable for a few seconds; but we’re used this by now.
My friends around me are getting ready to sleep, sharing stories of their day - a life limited to only a few streets in this area; they tend to repeat themselves a lot. It’s one of the better nights; my fingers will start to feel the cold eventually, but for now the air is surprisingly mild. A lovely young couple just came out of nowhere, sharing their pizza with us - not knowing that Tuesday is the day when nobody goes hungry around here. The sikh - obliged to feed the poor because of their religion - already came to Ilford, bringing enough food for every mouth. My belly is full too, so I won’t touch the pizza for now, but I can still feed on the warm, friendly smiles we get from these two; they didn’t care about blame, they didn’t ask why we’re here or whose fault it is, they just wanted to help us because they understand we need it. I have some hope; maybe the good will of these people can reach a level of understanding that’s not quite there yet - providing the kind of help we never wanted, but can’t move on without it. It’s kinda like last christmas, hard to be happy with the 30th pair of black socks in the different charity gift packages, when you only have two pairs of boxershorts for a week, but at least we can appreciate the willingness to give...
Others approach this differently, the compassion, the empathy, the very thing that makes the best of us so human is all there, only for them it’s paired up with disgusted anger - misguided by so many loud voices coming from everywhere - politics, media, the similarly misguided neighbour; someone always pointing a finger, pressuring people to do the same. Such a shame, humanity wasting so much energy on hating the next guy who doesn’t have a voice to defend himself...
About a week ago I was sitting on a bench with a relatively new friend - bonding over the tough circumstances we both have to face day after day, albeit for different reasons. I didn’t know his story until that day, and I’ve learnt to listen to these with healthy skepticism - you rarely hear the fully honest version in the first few days of meeting someone: generally there’s something embarrassing enough to hide in the
background. I wish they knew straight-away that I won’t judge. How could I?! I’m sitting right there myself!
Smoking was the topic we started from - you wanna smoke, you gotta walk... Now that I think about it, this is something we do all the time: making sad, resigned remarks about the methods we use to circumvent our lack of resources, on our way to lose our dignity. Smoking is a nasty addiction, creating a habit of false rewards. As a matter of fact, being addicted to anything is just like being thirsty for days: you lose focus of everything else, water is all you can think of and after a while at some point you will completely stop caring about what other people might think if you go down on your knees and happily slurp the contents of a muddy puddle in the middle of High Street. Addiction is a loss of free will - your habit makes the decision for you. Most rough sleepers stopped caring about people watching them picking up dogends from the street, too. Maybe you - reading this - are one of those who’re distancing themselves from the problems of the poor, rationalizing it by saying things like: they can beg for food, they don’t work, but the cigarette is still in their mouth. (If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this, I wouldn’t be here...) Well, think again, rough sleepers rarely spend money on smoking, but they can’t stop feeding their addiction. Did you know that 97% of all attempts to quit smoking fails in the end? It’s hard enough if you have nothing to worry about - I’ve seen many rough sleepers trying it, not a single one succeeded.
My friend stood up, telling me that he’s about to go on a hunt for tobacco, when all of a sudden a pack of cigarettes broke into my peripheral vision, accompanied by the energetic voice of a proper English lady: ‘ Take one, my dear’ - she said to my friend kindly. She was sitting in some sort of a wheelchair; I’d say about 75-85 years young, limited in movement only; her sharp remarks told us that she still possesses a curious, keen mind. She asked a few questions about the situation of my friend, acknowledged that he’s British, (but not from London), and gave some legal advice to him, hoping that his difficulties can be solved quickly with the right guidance. We both acknowledged her effort to help, but I have the feeling that my friend already ran many circles around this in the past months, running into a brick wall at some point. He didn’t want to disappoint her by telling her the truth: ‘it always looks easier to solve someone else’s problem, but it’s almost never that simple.’
Then she turned towards me, asking about my own troubles; I answered as honestly as I could, letting her know that I’ve been on and off the street for a long time now, doing what I can. Working part-time, volunteering, studying, constantly trying to think my way out of this mess. I saw the compassion in her eyes, a complete stranger
feeling sorry for us, and particularly for the fact that educated people like us can fall out of the system.
Suddenly, she had a strange spark in her eyes, a burst of energy visibly shaking her up as she gathered steam to angrily tell us the main cause of our problems. She turned towards me: ‘It’s all because of those F...ING Eastern Europeans, you see! - she said, practically spitting these words with as much hate as her body and mind allowed at her tender age. I had to put a damper on my smile, and from the corner of my eye I could see my friend doing the same. She obviously didn’t notice my accent, or possibly took me for an American or Canadian like most people do. I had to make a quick decision - should I tell her, that I’m Eastern European myself? I voted no - it’s downright impossible to convince anyone in a short conversation if the beliefs are almost religiously indoctrinated so deeply. You need authority for people to listen to important topics nowadays, an air of success around you - the more ‘rousing’ the voice, the easier it is for the speaker to turn listeners into followers.
For a few more sentences she rambled about the sins of those pesky barbarians taking the livelihood of her people - including all three of us in the bracket of the victims of course - then finally changed back to the lovely grandma-routine, letting us go with best wishes and an encouraging smile.
As I was watching her leave, I remembered the last time when Olly and Nick showed up at the local day centre. (I have to insert this here: if you’ve read my first story, you probably remember them being absolutely invaluable in my life. They’ve put complete faith in me in a situation when I’ve already lost my own, gave me a platform to have a voice by encouraging - and rewarding - me to write, even though I’d never tried that in English before, and most importantly, they were listening carefully, if I had something to say - making that voice stronger, more powerful every day. Guys, I can’t thank you enough, you’re amazing!!!)
So, looking at the old lady ‘driving’ away in her little wheelchair, I was thinking about the conversation we had at the guys’ last workshop. I remember them summing up their round trip in Ilford, how they visited so many different places, including schools, local businessmen, and us of course, the cardboard citizens of this area; taking the stories and questions from all the places they’ve seen to the others. I’m not sure what led to one of ‘our guys’ talking about the cause of his problems, but the point is - he was putting most of the blame firmly on himself, and soon enough, his words were echoed by the crowd sitting around. Terrible decisions, bad habits, addiction, you name it; everyone followed his lead - ‘it’s all my fault, I did this to myself’ - that was the general
consensus. When Olly wanted us to ask questions of our own, I had to ask him if he was surprised about this - these poor souls who are blamed for so many things wrong (not just) in this country, they tend to blame themselves entirely for their own faith. (And God, how many times they’re so wrong about this!!!) Olly didn’t hesitate for long before answering with a definite yes.
When we had the option of asking questions to the businessmen of Ilford, I wanted to know two things: do they think there is a possible win-win scenario, a way to make helping those in need beneficial for both sides, and what actual steps can they think of to get there from where we are now. But in all honesty, I don’t think there is a question at all; thinking back to my own business studies, management 101 in particular - the very first rule of the very first lesson is: if there is a problem, the number one priority is:
A., - you have to solve it immediately, B., - then make sure it doesn’t happen again, and C., - then, only then can you start looking for the person to blame.
For some reason, society seems to work the other way around. Find someone to blame, cut them off, and then hope this will solve everything. Well, I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but if that’s the solution, how come that after 2 years, I still see the exact same faces around the dinner table at the day-centre, only there’s a constant stream of new ones, making it all a bit crowded...
Economics is all about efficiency and satisfaction. Invest with long-term goals in mind, and reap the rewards when they’re due - short-term solutions might make some rich quick, but most will go bankrupt eventually. I wonder how many of these businessmen learnt this rule throughout their lives.... The amount of productivity wasted because of people getting stuck in situations similar to my very own is absolutely mindblowing. There are the ones with various Ba, Bs or even Master’s Degrees, entrepreneurs, designers, architects, barristers, special forces soldiers from other countries, a huge amount of aspiring (and talented) artists in great need of guidance and management, not to mention all those young, able-bodied guys coming from construction - plumbers, painters, bricklayers, all waiting for the tiniest push, an opportunity, a little faith put in them by someone with the right kind of resources. Someone, who doesn’t want to feed us with answers before asking any questions. Someone, who doesn’t want to punish people who can not take more punishment.
I know, currently we cost more than what we make. Feeding, cleaning, keeping us warm by donating sleeping bags or blankets, and of course, replacing all those lost items that got thrown away by others - security, cleaners, enforcement - who don’t understand how important those things are for our survival - and I mean survival in the literal sense. Yet the official stance on this is extremely short-sighted. I went to the housing office a few days ago to translate for one of my fellow countrymen, who has a very degenerative, possibly terminal illness, and the first sentence we heard was (I’m quoting): ‘Vulnerability is not eligibility’. How do you translate this to that poor women who worked hard for decades, lost everything, and now might have months to live without help?
Based on what I’ve seen, most of the time there’s a combination of bad luck, a broken family connection, and some kind of a health problem holding us back - usually a pretty serious one; we’ve got everything from brain tumor to schizophrenia around here. These aren’t just the causes of us ending up helpless, but they also ‘help’ us stay that way.
Every time there’s a new face at the day centre, you can see the desperate attempt to conserve the image of belonging to society. There’s so much shame in everyone in those terrifying first few weeks - trying to hide our fall, our face, our new and unexpected group of problems. Walking around with a thousand bags, our already stained clothes somehow magically getting dirtier every second while we’re talking about going to church instead of saying soup kitchen... I met someone new recently, watching her struggle with this reminds me of my own beginnings here - still putting down a bag for cover or tying an already fixed shoelace as we bend down for that tempting fat cigarette-butt...
Carrying those bags around, pretending to be tourists, on vacation. I had sort of a running joke with a smart, educated friend of mine about a year ago that the reason we’re outside is because we’re doing valuable research, conducting an experiment, leading an expedition to this particular hell on earth, hoping to find the holy grail to cure poverty...
A little more than half a year ago I thought my experiment finally ended. I was given an opportunity to ‘get inside’; I had the promise of no expectations, a place to heal, the promise of a well-paying job, and of comfort and safety I couldn’t get outside. It looked like an easy decision, so I didn’t think much before accepting it. The job was the key, one that would’ve given me the resources to sustain myself off the street, and finally feel entirely human again. The week I was supposed to start, someone completely
unrelated to me died unexpectedly - the father of my promised employer. He asked me to wait a month because of all the troubles this cost him, and then asked to wait another. I made the mistake of obliging; (possibly forced to do so by my own disorders, but here I go, putting the blame on myself, too...) The wait caused me to use up the good will of those who gave me a place to stay. I tried desperately to build something out of what I have, but I ran out of everything rather quickly, constantly worrying about the day when I have to leave. One day my only working tool, my old, second hand laptop went up in smoke. A new job opportunity allowed me to replace it with an even better one, but that didn’t last long - a month later I got robbed by 3 teenagers carrying knives and wooden logs - similar to a baseball bat - in a public park, in broad daylight, on Mother’s Day... The people giving me a place to stay started running into financial troubles themselves - I had to leave. I lost 2 stones while I was there. I was exhausted, hungry, fighting a never-ending cold, barely dragging my belongings packed into four heavy bags.
So I came back, running to familiar ground like a wounded animal, ashamed of my unsuccessful attempt of breaking free. It’s my turn to hide some of the truth, afraid of being judged by those who might not understand how little free will I have left. With my social anxiety, I had to face my worst nightmare, causing disappointment to those who cared about me. I was very close to giving up, and finally, when I arrived to the day-centre, someone gave me exactly what I needed - the biggest hug I can remember since I came to England... (Wow, I still can’t write about this without shedding a tear...) Thank you, thank you so much for that! It gave much-much more strength then you can imagine, setting me on a path that already changed everything in just a couple of weeks since.
Another sportscar zooms by with the sound of an avalanche, triggering the motion sensors of the alarm in the loading bay next to us, distracting me for a second from my typing. This alarm is new, one of the many-many sad changes I’ve found since I came back. I’m getting hungry again, but the boys left me a few slices of the pizza - they learnt it’s easier to share, we’re stronger together, but still, it isn’t something they actually had to do. (Thanks guys!) It’s getting cold, too, I’ll wrap it up for now, hoping for another chance to use my newly found voice again in the future, and hoping that the next time I leave this place for a while, I can come back with my own resources to help; hoping that I can come back with more carrots instead of sticks, (people like us had seen too many sticks already, if we bend further, we’ll break...), hoping to work together on solutions instead of ending up more and more divided.
This is worth dreaming about; everybody around me lays motionless by now, time for me to sleep too, got a lot of work tomorrow...
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