Some of you may remember that I wrote in support of food banks in December, related to my homeless teenage years. I never used a food bank back then because I didn’t know about them, I wish I did…life might have been easier to cope with. The public response to my account was far beyond my expectation, people really care about this issue. There is a pattern with charities and homelessness around Christmas time… People feel privileged in their warm houses surrounded by meticulously wrapped Christmas gifts, with a packed freezer, so it becomes more apparent how stark the difference is between the haves and have nots, people give. It’s great, it’s important that people do give, and conveniently, the products food banks mostly ask for are very-long-life, so it’s not even a case of “A dog is for life, not just for christmas”, many of the items donated this christmas, should demand drop (which is the ideal of course) would still be suitable long until 2015 and in some circumstances, even further.
More so at the end of 2014 than any other year I can recall, the issue of extreme-poverty and homelessness seemed to get extensive press coverage, both good and bad, on the one hand you have people such as myself speaking on behalf of those in dire circumstances and of course you have the critical corner, those who decide that poverty isn’t real, that it belongs only in VT’s of Lenny Henry visiting foreign lands. I spoke out for those in need and didn’t want it to end there, I wanted to see what it was like now, what facilities are available for those who poverty-deniers believe don’t exist.
Firstly I spoke at length with a gentleman called John Morrissey, a cameraman by trade who decided that he was able to do something to help out those less fortunate than himself. John had occasionally gone out and spoken with some rough-sleepers around Belfast, talked to them about their situations and helped out where he could with a hot meal and a cuppa, realising he was able to do more, he bought a bus. A huge bus. I’ve been out and boarded The Dining Bus and it’s a behemoth, a former mobile-library, it’s been stripped and re-purposed as a mobile café for those who need to avail of it.
With the kindness of a small army of volunteers, John is aiming to provide a regular service to known spots of rough sleeping, whilst offering a hot meal and a drink, the aim of this is also holistic in nature, having a comfortable, safe and warm place to relax for a while, the human interaction element that is often not thought of when raw statistics of poverty are being thrown around by the media… I don’t necessarily mean “So, tell me what’s troubling you” in a faux-social worker style, just the kindness of a stranger coming along, giving you a chicken casserole on a proper plate with real cutlery and talking to you about the recent football results or any other such day-to-day pleasantries. There has been criticism of Johns operation in that it doesn’t solve a problem, and in fact perhaps if people who are sleeping rough are being enabled in this way, it is maybe going to facilitate them not seeking out the help they may need. Whilst it is a valid point, I have no doubt John will be equipped to point people in the right direction with regards to agencies to offer assistance…but if we as a society just rely on organisations like the Welcome Trust to make contact with people and get them off the streets, then without any doubt, people will get missed…some who want to be missed…and there is a very real risk of tragic cases arising. Who mourns a homeless person dying of starvation under a motorway flyover? Do they count in statistics? Is it a fault of an agency like the Welcome Trust? No, of course not, but the build-it-and-they-will-come attitude isn’t necessarily enough. John is bringing the mountain to Mohammed so to speak, and he should be applauded for this. If you want to get involved in what he’s doing, you can get in touch here or here, I’m not entirely sure what he needs at this moment but I suspect if you got a new 22piece plate or cutlery set at christmas and you’re looking to get rid of the old stuff, he might be very greatful…also if you are a catering business then I implore you to get in touch as there are very real and simple ways you can assist him.
Another initiative that has sprung up over the winter holidays is the Hipod.
Located directly opposite the Malmaison (starting at £79 per room/per night) and in view of The Merchant Hotel (starting at £220 per room/per night) in an area I guess would be described as a park…? Over the years, this location has been notorious as a convening point for problem drinkers and people who are sleeping rough on the streets of Belfast. The Hipod is an innovation aimed at making what is an incredibly dire situation a modicum more bearable. Speaking with the creator, who wishes to remain anonymous, they spoke to people who were sleeping on the streets and asked what the main issues were (apart from the obvious), coupling their responses with the stereotype of sleeping on a park bench, they came up with this. Bench by day, refuge by night. I was never in a situation as dangerous as sleeping in shop doorways, alleyways, behind commercial bins…but there are those who are. And once more, whilst the poverty-deniers would say that there are plenty of organisations who are specifically geared to deal with just such scenarios, if that was a foolproof point, then nobody would sleep rough in the first place. The Hipod isn’t just a bench with a space underneath, it is specifically designed to meet the immediate needs of the user, solar panel battery cells can provide phone charging and led lighting within and an FM radio for companionship (Having spent many nights sleeping in vehicles, do not underestimate the importance of this…) all able to be activated by a motion sensitive switch in order to preserve power for when it’s required. Frankly this concept is a game changer, considering how cold it has been of late, I think we can agree that at some point this winter, we have all said something like “I’d hate to be out on a night like this”, if this was taken up as a possible interventionist solution, how much suffering could be prevented? This was financed and built privately with the aim of raising awareness as much as helping, although what a wonderful by-product! I would hope that in town centres across the world, copies of this could spring up, local charities and church groups could take it on as a project to build their own…it was common practice for a while that after someone passes away, stick their name on a plaque, screw it to a bench and put it in a park or by the sea-side, and the observant among us may have sat on the seafront, looked at the seat and thought for a moment about the person behind the memory…well how about in memory of someone, that bench becomes a potential life saver… There are so very many reasons that the Hipod is a social enterprise that we should all get behind, and absolutely no reason that this should be the only 1 to ever be constructed…Unless of course you don’t believe that people sleep rough, in which case I hope the tooth fairy ignores your house in future. Having been featured on multiple news sites already, this is an idea that should be ignored at societies peril. You can find them on Facebook at “Common Law NI” and get advice on what your rights are in common law if your home is at risk.
Finally, the food bank itself. I went to Storehouse Belfast, located in the centre of Belfast, down one of the cities many entries, off High Street. An innocuous frontage, just a door, that if memory serves, used to lead to a recruitment agency “Office Angels”…if that isn’t a sign of the times then I don’t know what is. I met some of the people who work for The Storehouse and observed some families who were there not for food but for companionship and a safe playing environment for their toddlers, it really was quite inspiring. I had an apprehension prior to going because I knew that The Storehouse was somehow affiliated with the church The Vineyard, and there is a perception that foodbanks associated with churches can a method of proselytizing, that may be so with some groups but I encountered none of that here. It was a well set up organization there to assist in any way they can, not just with food but with clothes,
As I arrived another charity group were delivering some fresh produce from a major supermarket that was reduced and no longer likely to be sold, fruit, veg, baked goods…things that you and I consider essential but to 14 year old me, an absolute rarity. The supermarket donates anonymously which I think is a sad state of affairs, I know some don’t wish to be seen to be making a marketing moment out of kindness but encouraging others to do the same in my view counteracts this point more times than not…one item that had been donated by the store was something I had bought the before at full price, a good quality item at that!
Storehouse Belfast operate a referral system, where any number of agencies, bodies and other folk can refer someone along, with no cohesion between them. Everyone I’ve spoken to involved in foodbanks has stated categorically that they do not want government intervention, if the government gets involved it will be harder to help people and food banks may spring up just for the purpose of availing of whatever the government is offering…my view though is that there should be at least some sort of NGO tasked with administration for the industry, a social worker or doctor gives out a referral letter to an individual stating to go to X Foodbank…there is no system in place to prevent that same social worker or doctor giving them multiple letters, for Y Foodbank, Z Foodbank and so on. Storehouse operate a limit of 6 times in a 6 month time frame, the purpose is not to sustain you, but to facilitate you sustaining yourself. If my mother had been able to forgo buying groceries for us for a week and instead put the money to something useful and future-thinking (as opposed to alcohol and more alcohol) then the length of time I would have been in that situation could have reduced. There is definitely something to be said for an Americanised system of food stamps, obviously there are a great many flaws with that system also, but in certain situations, you just can’t trust people to help themselves. This shouldn’t stop them from being helped though.
I spoke to Alan Carson who is the Project Manager at Storehouse Belfast and also a minister with the Vineyard church, his aim ultimately is to step in as family & friend where no other assistance is forthcoming. One argument that was put to me when I shared my story in December was that why couldn’t family help me… sometimes that just isn’t possible, Storehouse seeks to create that bond between their clientele, Alan told me of someone who regularly attends Storehouse for the community aspect, not the “Free-food”, who was going in for an operation but had no family to attend hospital with him, other people that he knew through Storehouse went along and were there for him, this social cohesion is sadly lacking in modern society. One thing I always hated about my mother was her social-flightiness, she never made friends long enough for there to be a real connection…I relied on my friends for somewhere safe to go and somewhere to get a warm meal (whether they knew it or not) but that was for me, none of that came from her own industriousness…although interestingly, when we did get our own place again, she had a penchant for inviting alcoholics and generally ropey characters back to stay on our sofa for often weeks and months at a time…some of these people were absolutely not characters a child should be co-habiting with, I guess it was her way of trying to be there for someone in the way that nobody was for us…ill judged shall we say. Storehouse offers that focal point around which bonds can grow, in our darkest hour of need when we turn to any avenue available, it’s important that the people looking to help us are genuine and altruistic, I believe those at Storehouse are completely that. As I said before, I was apprehensive about the religious aspect, and discussed briefly my views on faith and faith groups with Alan, completely openly and freely, he said he once heard 2 guys waiting to collect a food parcel, 1 who had been there before and 1 who hadn’t, the gentleman with experience said to the other “if you let them pray for you, you’ll get 2 bags!”…the trained staff at the Storehouse will pray for those who attend, if you want…if you don’t that’s fine too, if you need assistance, that’s all they care about. They also have an educational element to what they do, going into schools and discussing what Storehouse is about, explaining food poverty and homelessness and encouraging them to be aware of their society…I so wish this existed for me, I kept my situation a secret so to speak, I didn’t discuss it openly and whilst I’m sure some people knew something was going on, nobody knew the extent of it…to think that an organisation like this could have come into my school and let me know that what I was experiencing was able to be helped, that there were ways of making it easier on us, and even just removing the taboo a bit, I hope to work with them in the future on this.
If someone wants to do some kind in the world, fantastic. If they do it because they feel they are able to help, like John Morrissey and The Dining Bus, superb. If they do it because they have a particular innovation or skill that can help those in need like the creator of the Hipod, brilliant. If they do it because their moral code and the teachings they follow as a guide for life encourage them to and they are able to like the guys at Storehouse Belfast, fantastic.
It is not for want of having that people need assistance, sometimes people need a little help from wherever is able to help them, and when we judge those in need we do ourselves the most harm.
I’ll finish with a good ol’ confucius quote….
“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of”
Once again I encourage people to help out where help is needed, but most importantly, don’t look down on anyone who needs help, it could be you some day.
Kris tweets ferociously as @belfastbarman and runs an associated site, www.belfastbarman.com where he occasionally opines his views. He lived abroad for a while and as such, feels he will never really ‘get’ this place. Formerly a barman, he regularly broke the cardinal rules of, “No politics or religion in the pub,” as such, he turned to writing. Previously a stand up comedian and an animal crematorium assistant, now works in marketing and is a recently joined member of the Alliance Party.