This is a story 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…