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This morning’s reading in morning prayer was the good samaritan. I was just reminded of it as I read this article. Please go and read it too. I apologise for where it’s located, though if its general readership read it, I’m glad.

Have you read it? Please do, I’ll wait. It’s really important that you do. Here’s the link again.

Do you know why it bothers me? Well, the whole spikes thing bothers me and thousands of others, yes. And the statistics of homeless bothers me, having studied it when training in Salford and seeing with my own eyes people who the statistics say don’t exist.

But mostly, right now, the bit that bothers me is at the end, where he gives the sleeping bag. I hope it made you cry. Can I tell you something? I have *no* idea how many people think that reporter reported an accurate view of life in our civilised/developed/insertyourown society today, but I do know that on Saturday evening I offered someone a second cupcake and he said, no, no, give them to the others first. I’ve had one.

Saturday is almost never a day off for me, and often it has work that gets done in the evening. But not working means the potential to go out with Making Winter Warmer into Newcastle.

(are you sure you read that article? you might need to go back here too, to save me repeating myself – please, you don’t want me to do that, I do it enough as it is).

I came home – as do all the others each week – both heartbroken and uplifted. For whatever the rhetoric the media or politics would like to spread – and yes, many have mental health and alcohol-related problems – so would you if you had to spend more than one night like that reporter did, it’s a bit chicken and egg… most people are ‘perfectly normal’, not to mention lovely.

There were many walking past, out on the toon in a lovely evening, ignoring us. A few curious ones asked what it was for. A couple of cheeky chaps tried to claim some food, then didn’t quite have the grace to successfully look sheepish when realising it was for the homeless. One young lady was really interested in the project. As a student who comes from a rural area, she confessed to being absolutely horrified by the level of homelessness she was seeing on the streets here. She went away having written down the project details and hopefully she will indeed spread the word around her friends and peers.

I found myself critically evaluating what’s really needed now – and apart from a location for storage and sorting, which is pretty critical in itself, but needs thinking about also in terms of where the project goes because that might affect the location or type of space (go read their page, for the irony of the homeless project being made homeless) – and basics still needed for the street friends which are the same basics they started out with  – rucksacks, tents, clean basic clothes, flasks, hygiene items – some of the other things are very simple and practical.

The suspended food scheme hasn’t totally worked out, and now volunteers try to make sandwiches to take away. ‘Sandwiches’ basically means a packed lunch type bag of stuff, including water and bananas >

go on, stop for a second and think about the absolute reality of living on the street, now public toilets are barely available, public baths have closed, and there aren’t exactly a vast number of freely available drinking water founts

> and some treats. When there’s more food than people, that’s great, it means people can take away a carrier of extras to keep them going into the following day. But actually there weren’t enough carriers on Saturday. Who cares if a lovely cupcake gets its icing a bit flattened being wrapped up in a serviette – it still tastes the same. Well yes, but I for one have a drawer full of carriers I get when I’ve used my forever bags and have something leftover, or I’ve needed to drop in for an unexpected shop – this doesn’t bother me overmuch as I use them for bin liners, since I get through so little rubbish. (It does bother me that it doesn’t set a good example to other people not to use forever bags, so mostly I only buy what I can carry!)

But I do get them, and lots of people give me things in carriers, and we have a load at church which people bring things for the foodbank trolley in. So they’re an easy addition to the donations.

Thermal mugs. I had a few when I was at work. I honestly haven’t the foggiest what happened to them. I had a stainless steel with a stainless steel inner, and a stainless steel with a plastic inner. I never figured out which was preferable. I think I probably donated them away a long time ago. I replaced them with a breakable one – not a great idea, but much better for taste – from Blackboard, carefully packaged and sent over for me by my friend Dan.

Anyway, a breakable one probably isn’t that great an idea when it’s difficult to be careful with it, but if you get given a hot drink on the streets, keeping it hot for as long as poss would be super. Flasks obviously also fulfil that purpose, but I’m reckoning that plenty of us have one of those thermal mugs lying around somewhere, which be honest, you never use. If you do, feel free to drop me a note, cos we could rehome them for you.

The chance to choose clothes – with a size and item request you can pull out stuff that will fit, but it might not be what someone would have chosen themselves. I hope I don’t hear you saying ‘they should be grateful’… Dignity is perhaps the biggest loss in life, however that takes form. If we have lots of donations in certain sizes, why shouldn’t someone get the choice – because I can tell you, you might not think twice about being able to browse a rail, whether it’s in Monsoon or in AgeUK, but when you have nothing, making some conscious controlled choice gives back a bit of humanity.

Treats –  Mrs M and another mum and I have discussed baking for these street friends – and more. We’ve talked about baking bread together and doing enough to keep and to give away – to Sanctuary, our local supper project, to the foodbank recipients, to MWW. When the request came in first for bananas, I began looking for recipes that – much as cupcakes are indeed a treat, and thus entirely justified as such – contain grains and fruit and don’t get trashed if they’re in a pocket for a while. Homemade granola/cereal-type bars. Flapjack. Chocolate content being in chips within rather than on the top where it melts sticky (did I point out wipes are on the request list, given that there’s little by way of washing facilities on the street…?)

I had mused on this ‘group’ being Bread of Life, and I feel like it’s getting closer. Catering packs of clingfilm, or – especially if sandwiches are being given out – tupperware sandwich holders? How do you best organise your belongings if everything you have fits in a small rucksack, or two carrier bags, which are getting a bit ripped?

Go on, you know you want to think about that one too.

Gents, those bulging pockets beyond phone, keys and wallet, and a dislike of manbags; ladies – doesn’t everything manage to collect all mangled in the bottom of your handbag – how does that happen? Now try and put your cupcake and your donated travel toothbrush into the mix. It’s not pretty, is it, but it’s all you’ve got.

If you did as I asked and read the back stories, you’d know that I have a dream. I’ve had a dream for a long time. I’m not totally sure going in to ministry is going to get me any nearer or any further away from it. I suspect, if anyone told me to dream away, I might have ended up with something not dissimilar from http://www.lighthousewoking.org/

So now I’m perhaps quietly wishing I had a parish within the town centre with a hall and a kitchen. Cooking burgers on a gas stove with a bbq picnic atmosphere in the sunshine is one thing, but developing the project further to face the next winter is something they are having to face now. There are already agencies which run inhouse homeless support and outreach, including hot food vans. MWW need to work out what their usp is, and how they work alongside not in competition with other agencies to extend and enhance. I know they’d love a hot food van, but I’m pretty certain there’s a whole heap of official stuff that comes with getting a van.

But what they do – what they do best – isn’t just about the food – indeed it didn’t start about the food.  While it would be mega-twee to say man does not live by bread alone, the greatest commandment of all is to love one another. Sure, that very definitely includes food. But more than that, it means loving people, hugging people, listening to people, laughing with people, looking people in the eye. At eye level. Not looking down on people, not passing by on the other side.

Very genuinely, statistics tell us that we really are only a single short crisis away from needing the foodbanks or becoming homeless ourselves. It is there but the grace. The people who gain most from an evening out on the streets with MWW? Close run thing. Honestly. I dunno.

I think it might have been me.

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You know those times when things, or something, some particular issue or situation weighs heavily? Not specifically more importantly than all the other things to pray for and about, but sometimes some things are to the fore. I’m having [another] one of those times.

homelessjesus

Been here before. and before. and touched on before. And of course I still have my dream.

I have been touched and inspired by the work this last few months of Making Winter Warmer, begun as a small scale intention to do exactly that, give out some rucksacks with some warm clothes, sleeping bag, flask to some of the ‘street friends’ around the city. The girls who began it have seen it take off big time. It’s been a privilege to see it blossom – though sad to see the need. They’re collecting things that are needed. We’ve taken quite a bit of stuff in donation for them. We’ve also taken some cakes. This week I also took books. They’re collecting things, but there’s so much more to it than that.

homeless-feet

One of the bigger things growing  is that a super cafe, 99, right in the centre of Newcastle, has brought suspended drinks and meals into the mainstream, and closes its doors on Saturdays early, to cook as many meals as have been bought during the week. They’re given out, along with the rucksacks – or requests for particular things, by the amazing making winter warmer team.

But there’s more. These angels don’t just do, they be. For a couple of hours, or whatever it takes, they then hang around and keep company, listen, talk, hug. They see. They hear. They make, just for a tiny moment in a miserable [or insert stronger word here] week, people think they matter. Instead of being ignored and invisible. There is, perhaps, no greater love. Each week when there’s a circulated update, it breaks my heart and makes me cry. Each time I read one it makes my heart sing to know there are people out there prepared to do that.

invishomeless

Making Winter Warmer isn’t a faith-based organisation, it’s grown from a few friends knowing that there was a need, that they couldn’t sleep till they did something about. Faith-based or not, I thank God for them, and I ask his blessing on them and the work they are doing, and the Christ they are being to those in need.

This weekend, I’ve been at Shepherd’s Dene retreat house with colleagues, being wonderfully fed and treated in front of a log fire with permanent good coffee on tap. The rooms – I didn’t know this before – are all en-suite. And the kind of en-suite you usually get in a very good hotel. Wonderful bonus. Often I don’t sleep well in a random strange bed, and often corporate showers in a less than very good hotel leave much to be desired.

But this weekend I’m doubly grateful for them, because these last few weeks, more than ever, the plight of living in a world where so many people have neither shelter nor shower weighs on me. Weighs on me like the life size crosses we see so many bearing through the streets on  Good Friday walks of witness. There’s nothing that makes me feel better than a hot shower. Every morning I know that I hurt for the people who don’t have them. Our involvement with the foodbank tells us you most certainly don’t need to be homeless to struggle with warmth and the freedom to stand in a warm shower, but stripping away these basic dignities of the day make the outdoor all-weather nights and lack of food harder to bear.

There must be solutions. Making Winter Warmer are doing the most amazing job. Let’s join them and those like them. But we still need to be upstream, looking at where people are falling in. There’s no choice. It’s a gospel imperative. Every time I regret the lack of warmth in church, I wish we could open the hall to those who would find it positively tropical, and dry, and safe. And I wish we had showers.

“I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’
Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”
(many great posts on  http://kenburkey.com/tag/homeless/)

homelessjesusicon

How do we repay the costliest gift of all? We live the life He taught us to.

 

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It’s 18.5° inside. I have no idea what it is outside, the 40° heat in the summer broke my thermometer. but with a vicious wind, which is what makes the difference round here. I cannot imagine just how bitter it is to be out in this cold without shelter. So this is not a complaint, just observations in gratitude that at least it is almost nineteen degrees. At least, that’s what the display says. I’m wearing not just my usual thermal vest but thick thermal socks too under my duvet slippers, along with the two sweaters, scarf and my arm warmers/fingerless gloves. I have a snuggly blanket round my legs. My nose is like ice. Now I’ve moved from my pc to sit by the fire, I can feel my fingers enough again to type.

An hour ago I relented and put the gas fire on. The curtains are closed (I pretty much never open any except for the living room if I feel the neighbours will wonder what on earth kind of sloven I am if I don’t) and all the doors are closed. There isn’t a shutter on the serving hatch, so I can’t actually totally close out the kitchen and its drafts. Last winter it is probably true to say that with conservative use of the central heating thermostat, I was almost never warm. And the heating bills frightened me. So this year, I’m trying the other option. I’ve already stuffed hundreds of cotton wool balls in the half inch gaps in the windows and taped over them with insulating tape. I’d like to open my home to nightstop teenagers, but my spare rooms take lots of heating. This winter (and I am horrified to even think that the ‘winter’ proper has barely got going) I have moved my study into half of my living room, so that I can try the gas fire over the heating, and just run to bed quickly which has thermal bed socks and blankets over the duck duvet.

When I lived in Sweden, it was regularly 22-23° inside, even when minus that outside. Putting on winter trousers etc to go out in it is easy, easier than keeping warm inside. I can’t type or write very well in my fingerless gloves, and when I put a coat on as well I do a good impression of the michelin man.

Why is this not a rant? Well, I still have a roof over my head, and after an hour, sitting right in front of the fire, I’m also now warm. I’m conscious too, though, that if I turn the fire off it will be back at mega-chilly in no time at all. This is the third time I’ve switched the fire on, when I’ve been in all day, confining myself to the 3 square metres. I’m really worried what impact it will have on the bills, which I struggled to manage last year. But I get regular money to pay those bills with, and if I lowered the money that I give, I’d not worry quite as much. But that doesn’t apply to many.

Lots of our parishioners don’t have central heating anyway, so they live all the time like I am doing now. For our older friends, it really does mean they sit in their chair all day in front of the fire, or in many of the clothes they own if they worry about putting the fire on.
But some of them, and others, lots of the families who pre-pay their energy on keys or who are reduced to attending the food bank (creeping up to 100 clients at each opening – feel free to spend some time thinking about the abject wrong in that), there is no option, no choice to make about if it can be afforded, it simply can’t.

The rules on fuel poverty have just been changed/massaged so that less people fit into the criteria. It’s sadly ironic that the re-definition picks out that some of the most affected people live in the least efficient housing (with the possible exceptions of drafty vicarages) and have least opportunity to have that inefficiency fixed. So I think this is a feeble attempt at greater accuracy, in favour of establishing a priority for people needing help. I do not qualify as living in fuel poverty, and I’d worry if people worried about me over those who need it.

However, I realised, as I think about the rising levels of poverty and what we can and must do in the face of it, that under the old definition of fuel poverty, it did affect me. Fuel poverty under its old structure applied to anyone who had to spend more than 10% of their income on maintaining livable levels of 21° in living areas and 18° elsewhere. Like I said, I really struggled to get those temperatures in my house, and I spend more than 12% – and that’s before I have put the gas fire on 3 times already….

When I’m at home with a rare afternoon in to work, or a rare afternoon off, I’m very conscious of how long I can cope being in. I don’t have a good mental list of places to go and work that are warm and free, rather than loiter in a coffee shop over a coffee I stretch out. I have an IKEA family card, so the cafe there is warm if I drive out there (an option for me, but clearly not for all). And if I, despite having a regular income, actively – pretty much daily – worry about the cost of being warm, then I can only begin to imagine the misery of those who really are in energy poverty, even if they have homes and jobs. Our church day centre is limited in attendance by how many people the minibus can collect, but I wish we were open and warm every day and could teleport people in to not have to huddle by their unaffordable fires, or simply huddle in misery.

If this is what we call living for many, it stinks, frankly. How can we call ourselves a developed nation when so many struggle with basic issues of food and warmth? The visible and painful needs of the rest of the world are often highlighted to us in adverts at Christmas, but really, we surely cannot sleep easy in our own beds while local rates of hypothermia and depression rise within our own neighbourhoods. I used to live in a little mid-terrace solid house in which, conversely, I was almost never cold. Until you go there, you have NO idea just how all-encompassing the how-can-I-afford-it can be.

I listen to the wind rattling round the chimney behind the gas fire. The side of me near the fire is warm. I can feel the other side of my face is still chilly. But I’m lucky. Others aren’t. The hidden damage of poverty spreads insidiously around us. Scraping and worrying, going cold and hungry is a long way from life in abundance.

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I’m imagining a pretty good slap up meal in the Sims-Williams house tomorrow, as Robin finishes his #livebelowtheline challenge. Because he can. Little to say other than how sharply he has illustrated the reality for us. His reflection on day three reminds us yet again that thankfully for him this is a time-bound exercise and the dreary monotony will soon end, putting him out of his now not insignificant misery. As his creative more…

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So it’s day 2 for Robin and other intrepid livebelowtheliners, and – coincidentally, or not – I saw a fascinating tumblr post today. Whilst Robin and others like him share what their £1 buys them, here’s what others have in a week. Having lived in a few different countries, the anthropologist in me was interested in the variation in people’s kitchens/living rooms and cultures, and in the difference of content (lots of meat versus lots of vegetables versus how many bottles versus how many ready meals), not so much the amount. Until, of course, you reach toward the end of the post, when either half the amount stretches round more than twice as many people, or, as in the case of Mali or Chad, where it doesn’t even come close to half the amount…

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Robin begins “living below the line” tomorrow. He has posted on his shopping trip to Asda. I’ve been struck as he prepares for this week by how carefully one must think these things out – I wonder whether people used to doing this kind of budgetting ever manage to sell themselves as skilled at it on job applications – or how much better a state the economy would be in if it were they running it for a while rather than people who stop off for a drink after work and buy £50 bottles of champagne just because they can….

But please note Robin’s opening comments before he even starts, more…

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The latest welfare reform cuts are rightly prompting righteous outrage and comment and analysis from all quarters. It was noticeable that government ministers implementing changes refused an invitation to see themselves how it is to live on £53 a week. It is possible. Well, yes, it’s possible to survive, perhaps even to live, after a fashion, but hardly into the abundant fullness of life in which people flourish as human beings. And yes, it’s possible, because to do it for a week means you are full of decent food to start with and you return to your situation afterwards. But what if more…

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