24: You Can’t Save Souls in Shiny Shoes

24: You Can’t Save Souls in Shiny Shoes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

You Can’t Save Souls in Shiny Shoes

Vital lives are about action. You can’t feel warmth unless you create it, can’t feel delight until you play, can’t know serendipity unless you risk.

~Joan Erickson

Before studying at university I took a year off to be a volunteer with The London City Mission. Of all the varied activities I helped in, it was the work with the homeless in Charing Cross that made the most lasting impression.

Twice a week we would go to the City Mission Hall, preparing soup and sandwiches for the homeless, sorting out the clothes store and then spending time with them — playing cards and dominoes or simply offering an ear as they recounted their stories and experiences.

The rapport I built up with them never left me, and two years later, whilst commuting, I had a chance encounter with a homeless man in Waterloo Station. He was a broken man — an alcoholic with a penetrating sadness in his eyes, who looked at least sixty even though he told me he was in his forties. After I bought him a coffee in one of the station’s cafés, he showed me photographs of his family — three beautiful children and a loving wife — and he made a surprising request. He had been on the streets for three years, following the breakdown of his marriage due to his addiction. He had not heard from his children since they had emigrated to Canada to be with his ex-wife’s extended family. His wallet was empty, save for the photographs and a Post-It note with a phone number — his wife’s. He was too embarrassed to speak to them directly, but asked me if I would ring the number to see if it was still the correct one. “Just let my wife know that I am sorry and I think about the children every day,” he pleaded.

Nervously I made the call and my heart sank, not because it was the wrong number, but because as soon as I explained the reason for the call, all I could hear on the other end was sobbing. I apologised for causing undue pain, and his wife replied, “No, thank you so very much. We have been so worried. Tell him we love him. The children miss him, and we just want him to get his life back on track. Maybe one day we can visit when he’s in the right place.” She gave me her address and, shaken, I returned to the stranger and shared the news. I made some more calls and got him in touch with the relevant agencies that could help him.

I have no idea what happened to him, whether he got it together, whether his story ended happily or in tragedy. But from that moment on I felt a personal connection to the homeless. I joined numerous charities wherever I lived, until in one place I found a complete lack of services: It was Poole in Dorset, the end of the train line, and consequently a place where numerous travellers ended up. A seaside town, it came with the false hope of summer work. And its wealth caused an even greater rich/poor divide than in Central London. Grants and government funding for the homeless were restricted at the time to areas considered to be in multiple deprivation, and in this town the poor were hidden, forgotten — assumed to be a tiny minority.

In fact, the town’s policy was to hive the homeless off to the neighbouring town of Bournemouth. Many homeless people I spoke to resented this move, preferring to sleep rough in a town to which they felt a greater affinity. And so, I resolved to establish a coordinated voluntary approach to the problem.

At the time one church did a weekly soup run, and a group of nuns provided a twice-weekly lunch, but there was nothing the rest of the week and no joined-up work with other services to help them find longer-term solutions. Making connections with churches, charities and relevant health and social care departments, we started a nightly soup run under a bridge near the town centre. Expecting just the two or three folk we had encountered in the high street and the car parks, we were surprised at how quickly the word got about and the sheer numbers of needy people.

The council did an annual homelessness count, which had the previous year reported a single figure number of street homeless. Consequently, rough sleeping was not seen as a priority in their housing strategy. Speaking to the outreach team, I suggested the count be carried out by our volunteers and at a more suitable time, shifting it from nine o’clock (which was before many of them had even bedded down for the night) to after midnight. We were able to take the council worker to those hidden places we had found out about through the soup runs. The officially recorded numbers were over four times higher that year.

The work really began to blossom from that point on, and we soon established a drop-in centre and clothes bank. We provided a neutral place for people to link up with valuable services like housing officers, drug and alcohol support workers, adult educators and a health visitor.

It was often soul-destroying work; things rarely turned out the way we hoped. But in the midst of the heartache there were so many lighter moments. These very often came from the kindly yet sometimes-inappropriate donations people provided. Like the time we were donated a bulk load of uniforms. They turned out to be postal workers’ outfits and we had to recall them for fear that one of our clients might start impersonating a postman. There was the bulk load of sweet Kendal Mint Cakes that were served alongside the soup. A great source of energy for long, cold days and nights, but some of our clients needed a dentist and not solid bars of sugar. Or the perfume, insensitively called “Tramp.” Best of all were the potted plants that our volunteers ended up placing besides the sleeping bags of some clients, in stairwells, on derelict shop porches, and under the bridge. A touch of home on a harsh pavement.

Of all the gifts that the homeless received, it was the offer of friendship, a shoulder to cry on, and a non-judgmental ear that touched them the most. Building up trust was essential if they were to accept our help. The day centre and the soup run were theirs. We broke the divide between them and us, without compromising professional boundaries. We gave them a place around the table alongside the top brass of council officialdom in their strategy and planning meetings. Their views came to be heard, and made a difference.

I moved to the North twelve years ago, where I continue to volunteer. I am a board member for my local council’s social housing provider, where I constantly remind the directors to always consider the most vulnerable in their policies and procedures.

To this day, something the man said to me in that station café shapes the way I approach volunteering: “You can’t save souls in shiny shoes.”

~Paul Driscoll

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