In 1890, William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote of "the submerged tenth" — a " despairing multitude" enslaved by poverty and misfortune. Last week I was privileged to meet some of the 21st century's submerged people and the spiritual heirs of General Booth who still work amongst them.
Norwich is not a place commonly associated with society's darker underside. Like all cathedral cities, it presents a pleasant prospect to the visitor who is unlikely to notice the rough sleepers in the parks or to be aware of the existence of the Salvation Army's drop-in centre which is both sanctuary and lifeline to an average of 500 people a week. My guides to this alternative Norwich were Brian, a member of the Salvation Army and Brenda, an Anglican. As we set out on the nightly soup-run in a car stocked with blankets, tea, coffee and sandwiches as well as soup, Brian explained that there is a hard core of around 70 homeless people in the city and hostel provision for 18 to 20. He owned himself uncertain as to whether a night during which they found only a few people on the streets was to be accounted a good sign or an indication of failure. During our tour of multi-story car parks, back streets and parks. I was impressed by the efficiency, good humour and quiet compassion with which my companions went about their business. Everyone we met was treated with Friendly courtesy and not once during the whole expedition did I catch the faintest hint of disapproval or condescension.
H is difficult to maintain one's composure in the face of such misery as that of Socha who had failed to find a bed at the night shelter. Recently released from prison, he had returned home to discover that his wife had taken a new partner. He began to weep as he gulped his tea and alternately wished himself dead and back inside. He told us of his suicide attempts and bared his arm to show a still unhealed wound that stretched from wrist to elbow. Brian satisfied himself that Sacha had a blanket, directed him to a place where he might at least get out of the wind for the night and suggested that he go to the drop-in centre the following morning where he would find help and advice.
Although nothing else we encountered that evening was quite as distressing as the plight of Sacha, the experiences of
Alexis and Stuart should serve to afflict the comfortable. Alexis was taken in by her grandfather when her pareili; died. Subsequently isolated by liis death and the imprisonment of her brothc7, she became addicted to heroin and formed a relationship with a man who is now also in prison. She miscarried after being beaten up on the streets. If only half of this is true, it remains a dolorous CV for a young woman still only 20 years of age. We found Stuart and his dog bedded down for the night in a multi-storey car park. Monosyllabic and withdrawn, he revealed nothing of the history which had brought him to this bleak billet. As! looked round the cold concrete space where the ugliness of every pockmark and piece of litter was exacerbated by the sickly lighting, I felt a sense of shame, both at being an onlooker to Stuart's degradation and at taking my own pleasant home for granted The drop-in centre which the Army run in Norwich is known as the Arc — the acronym represents Advice and Refreshment Centre — and is, in the words of Jan Noon, the project manager, "the first point of contact for people in crisis". The advice is provided by a solicitor, an alcohol nurse and a substance misuse worker. Perhaps more important still is the nonjudgmental friendship and advocacy which the staff of the Arc offer to all who have recourse to their help. Here, desperate men and women shunned by those with more orderly lives, find themselves befriended, accepted and respected; here they may find not just referral to statutory agencies and assistance in dealing with bureaucracy, but for six hours a day, something as near to a home as they may ever have known.
Belinda is 27 and was homeless for a year. After the breakdown of her marriage, she was unable to look after her children who were taken into care. Those who lived nearby — they do not deserve to be called her neighbours — showed their disapproval of this state of affairs by abusing her, breaking her windows and finally firebombing her house. Unsurprisingly, she is being treated for depression. Her experiences have left her angry at what she believes to be media misrepresentation and public ignorance of the condition of homeless
women. "Tell your readers there are women homeless too and that we're not prostitutes". At the Arc, she finds some sense of security. "They don't judge you. People like me, we don't have family and friends to call up and without this place no one would give a damn about us. Where would we go?"
Jason and Darren are heroin addicts. Dato-ii began to use the drug at the age of 19 after his girlfriend left him: "She was my first love and I went to pieces." I remembered a similar passage in my own young life and wondered where I would be now if the friends who came round to pick up the pieces had brought heroin with them instead of a couple of bottles of cheap wine. Jason had been fortunate enough to find a doctor willing to prescribe a combination of dihydrocodiene and vallium — a palliative which he described as "making it possible to get up in the mornings — it just takes the edge off." It looked as though the edge was returning: sweating and pale, he observed that "heroin will be the death of me", in the unemotional tones of a man stating the obvious. The staff of the Arc have been instrumental in referring Jason and Darren to.a drug rehabilitation scheme but it will he six weeks before places become available. At least they will get one nourishing meal a day and some compassionate support in the interim.
And what of the men and women who work amongst these casualties of contemporary society? Like William Booth they have refused to make a distinction between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. They believe that the love of God commands them to the love and service of those who do not arouse tender feelings in the comfortable classes.
Unlike many whose moral absolutes have made them harsh and censorious, they bind up no burdens for wounded backs; they are gentle with all bruised reeds. Brian speaks of "reaching out to those who are struggling with life" in whom he recognises "the least of my brethren"; Brenda believes that " this is what I can do to help"; Jan sees "God coming to the door of the Arc" every day.
The Salvation Army depends. on voluntary. contributions. To make a donation in support of their work in Norwich, phone Brian Girling on 01603 724400.