Anthea Dove looks at the reality of homelessness, and the quiet generosity of those who relieve it.
IT would be wonderful, I often think, if my very first thoughts on waking in the morning were of God. But sadly, they aren't. They don't even turn immediately to other people. My first concern is me.
At any rate that is so on these early spring mornings, because the first thing I am conscious of is the cold. I tug at the duvet and hug it closer to my body. I struggle with the idea of going downstairs to fill a hot water bottle. My husband is not enough; I need a hot water bottle to keep me warm.
And as I lie there shivering, and dreading the sound of the alarm clock, I slowly become more awake. My consciousness gropes out, away from the sleepy centre that is me. My conscience stirs, and with shock and dismay I realise that there are people out there trying to sleep in doorways and on park benches in temperatures well below freezing.
I try to imagine what it must be like, and I fail.
In January of this year, along with millions of others, I listened to the special edition of Desert Island Discs featuring our Prime Minister. And, like millions of others. I suspect, I found myself thinking, what a nice man, humorous, gentle, humble, thoughtful.... I couldn't fault him in any way until he stated (to do him justice I think he may have been speaking only of London) that there is no need for any person to be homeless. He said that the government had provided ample accommodation, but some people choose indeed he used the word "want" to sleep rough.
I don't live in London. I live in a small. pleasant town where murder and drug addiction are relatively unknown, but even here our hostel for the homeless is full and people have to sleep outside.
I know this because I work in a place where people come with hope in their eyes, asking "have you anywhere for us to sleep?" We who have to turn them away feel dreadful, at the same time knowing that we don't feel half as dreadful as they do.
Yesterday we had two homeless people in the office. As soon as we opened, Alan came in. He was in his 50s, and he had walked 20 miles to our town, hoping to get work. He had slept, or rather, tried to sleep, on a bench in the park.
When he came in, his only complaint was that he felt dirty. We organised a hot shower for him. and some clothes from the WRVS. He was delighted with a pair of strong-soled shoes, grateful to the point of tears for the simple meal we provided. But we could find him no shelter for the night.
Julie, who came in towards the end of the day, was 16. She had left home because she was afraid of her stepfather. He had physically abused her several times. We could only suggest that she go to the council offices in the slender hopes of bed and breakfast accommodation. But it was fiveo'-clock. By the time she got there, the offices would be closed.
In what I have written, 1 may seem critical of John Major. But 1 am more critical of myself. As I finally creep out of bed I am near to weeping, because people are sleeping rough, because I am doing nothing to help them. I am no longer suffering from cold, but from guilt.
You see I have a spare bedroom, I also have a number of good excuses. I need that room for when the family come to stay. I need it for the friends who come away from the turmoil of their lives seeking peace. And if we gave that bed to a stranger we might never get rid of him. Suppose he smoked? Drank'? Was on drugs? Never washed? Was violent?
But the worst thing is acknowledging that I am just not brave enough, not generous enough to give shelter to the ones on whose behalf I shout so angrily.
On the way to work this morning I met my friend Jane, and shared my uneasy thoughts with her. She said "you don't need to wony. When it's as cold as this, none of them needs to sleep out. Verity always takes them in. She hasn't many beds, of course, but they sleep on her living room floor."
I only knew one Verity, a shabby old widow who lives in a big ramshackle house near the river. "Verity Walker?" I asked. I felt enormous relief. for Julia and Alan and the others, But I also felt shame, because Verity is not a Christian, and I am. •