Tony Bartlett explains the downward spiral of the hearthless
"THE BOTTLE is my life, my woman, my lover. I go to bed with it at night and cuddle into it. I kiss it last thing before I go to sleep and first thing when wake up in the morning. it's my warmth, my home. It's everything to me. I'll give up
everything for it. give up wife, family, everything, for my love of what's in that bottle."
These are the words of John, a 45 year old, jobless, homeless alcoholic. He spoke them in the small room he was occupying in one of the clutter of hotels in the neon-lit lodging land around Paddington. John was trying that night not to drink and on the strength of this intention had cornered me into driving him to Paddington, lest he should fall into temptation on the way.
In the absence of real drink his words became a ritual substitute, a hymn and a "high" of praise and love to alcohol that celebrated all the frightening chaos produced by this demonic power and was given graphic point by the lonely, cheerless room in which he spoke them.
John's tragedy is part of the pattern of modern poverty in a society which will supply money for bed and hoard but cannot answer the homelessness and chaos at the heart of so many of its people. But already even this frail attempt at a caring society is becoming a thing of the past.
The plans of the present Government to make radical cuts in accommodation benefits for the homeless will act to confirm in economic terms the deep inner wretchedness of the modern poor. It is engineering a neo-Victorian scheme of things where the alcoholic, the addict, the schizophrenic, those who are out of work and without a home for whatever reason, all will be made to suffer the physical consequences of their "guilt" in hardship and penury. It is a convenient and simple logic: the victims of society are always guilty and their poverty is proof positive of their guilt.
In reality it is a pattern of violence we are witnessing, and at many levels. The great majority of homeless in London are either on drink or drugs, forcing them down a spiral of hotels, hostels and squats, to skippering in derelict buildings and sleeping rough on the Embankment, living off handouts at day-centres and Missions while they spend their Social Security payments on the one thing that will make them happy.
The reflex response is that this is "self-inflicted" violence, but if you personally get to know some of these people it quickly becomes necessary to ask what "self-inflicted" means. So many of them are ex-army, ex-navy, from childhoods spent on the unemployment and poverty of the thirties, brutalised or abandoned by parents, and often spiritually crippled by authoritarian notions of God and the weight of a punitive conscience.
Members of Catholic Peace Action work regularly at a daycentre for the homeless and my personal experience derives from working full-time in a Christian organisation that seeks to offer a home and friendship to homeless men. In most cases they come as hardened drinkers for whom home must mean first a "dry house" where they can begin the long haul of recovery from alcohol.
All of the men and women in these circumstances would reject the term "victim" as offensive and a denial of the very real forces of moral strength within them. But when we think of how violence is structural and institutionalised — the patterns of violence with which society is strung together in so many ways and which become written in the flesh of individual human beings — then alcoholics and homeless people can be seen as a living sign of a chronic social malaise.
Down and outs are a living parable of the violence lurking within our values and so many of the circumstances of our society. To deny this is to blind ourselves to the psychology of violence in our society that ultimately touches us more closely than alcohol clings to the
brain of the alcoholic.
This single, unbroken thread of violence was made clear to me one night while talking with the men. Every week-day evening we have a little discussion arising from a theme taken from the Bible. General issues of the day often come up.
One evening after discussing the endless reports of war, greed, hunger coming from all parts of the world it was generally agreed that there was the need of something "to sort it all out". One of the residents commented in all sincerity: "What will sort it all out will be the Bomb; that will finish with it all".
Immediately one could sense a connection between this sort of nuclear fatalism so common in society and the ruinous love affair with drink that is supposedly a private complaint. Society looks with horror on an alcoholic but displays the very same destructive obsession on a .universal, catastrophic scale. The one results in destruction on an individual level, the other in the extinction of everything. The one is a metaphor of the other, an individual drama reflecting a common, "self-inflicted" tragedy. Both cases are linked to the one, murderous tap-root of violence.
And now for the bad news! It is notoriously difficult for an alcoholic to get off drink some put the success rate as low as two per cent. If the parallel holds good then our chances of scrapping the Bomb and avoiding the holocaust are something of the same order.
And yet it is precisely in this human impasse which beckons to despair that the light of faith — the Good news of Jesus suddenly bursts into brilliance, Members of Catholic Peace Action are committed to work with the homeless, not because there is any quick and easy solution to offer, but because by standing by them in compassion and witness the hope of the Gospel instantly illuminates their lives.
Tony Bartlett is a fall time church worker involved with London's homeless men and women. He is a member of Catholic Peace Action and Pax Christi.