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franciscan - May 1997

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1997

‘One of the least . . .’

by Sister Rose CSF

If someone had asked me five years ago if I would like to work with the homeless, I would have said, ‘No thank you. I’d rather be bitten by a rabid Doberman or teach.’ And if they had asked why not, I would have said, ‘Nits in my hair could ruin my perm.’ But a far deeper reason lay beneath the fear of the head lice. The hopeless shuffle of the homeless disturbed me, their undisguised lack of self-esteem evoked fear and their inability or reluctance to live the life of the majority angered me.

Some time ago, there used to be an advertisement on the Underground. It was a picture of a businessman walking a tightrope suspended across buildings in the city of London. The words beneath were ‘The Financial Times will help you stay here.’ Why would anybody want to stay there? And yet, when I saw people who had seemingly turned their back on staying any-where, my feeling of dis-ease was so acute that I had to look at it. Alongside the pain felt by witnessing their pain was a feeling, fleetingly felt, hardly tangible – envy. One hopeless alcoholic sleeping in a box in a doorway can arouse fear, anger, compassion and envy. No wonder I crossed over the road.

Three years ago, however, I decided to work with the homeless. Perhaps God knew that my days of crossing over needed to stop. At the soup kitchen at Stonhouse Street in Clapham, my job was to hand out food as people arrived, walk round with the teapot filling up cups and then circulate and get to know the wayfarers. There were three volunteers all subtly trying to be the one with the teapot. I hadn’t realised how crucial a teapot was to the art of communication. In fact, to be teapot-less was to be rendered devoid of all social skills. I lost the pot fairly early on during that first morning, when a young man asked for more soup. It’s difficult to hold a ladle, a dish and a gallon of tea. The other two volunteers were lurking close by, the pot was taken and I was now expected to socialise unprotected.

I wandered down the centre of the room looking for somebody relatively clean, relatively sober and without tattoos. Henry was my first choice. He was in his forties, living in a garage, had been in and out of care throughout his childhood and teens, had been homeless for two years, had been beaten up many times on the streets and by an alcoholic father. This I learned within ten minutes. There was such a depth of loneliness in Henry and such a lack of self-worth that he could tell me very intimate details about himself before waiting to see if I was trust-worthy. Never have I felt so humbled and I made up my mind that I would do justice to his words and prove myself to be worthy of the information.

Millie was my next stop. She called me over. She was in her sixties and although she hadn’t bathed, washed her hair or changed her clothes probably for months, she had an endearing vanity: her nails were painted deep red, she wore blue powder eye shadow and thickly-drawn eye brows. At the end of every sentence, she would ask, ‘You heard of that?’ ‘My friend’s got cancer; you heard of that?’ ‘You don’t have to pay for your plastic bags in supermarkets; you heard of that?’ ‘My husband used to give me black eyes; you heard of that?’ Yes, Millie – and all the pain you’re not expressing in words – I’ve heard of that as well.

Later that day, the priest-in-charge of the project spoke to the volunteers to explain the history and ethos of the place. He told us that the people visiting the kitchen were some of the most vulnerable and wounded of our society. Their self-esteem was low, they were shunned almost everywhere they went and we were to treat them with the respect they deserved and, indeed, were entitled to. This was how we were to welcome visitors and my heart rose to hear it. From that moment, I knew I would be working there for as long as I was in London. God was speaking to us through Father John and I was convicted in my heart.

The soup kitchen moved to alternative premises but I remained at Stonhouse Street to work in the residential unit for alcoholics. The residents are homeless prior to admission. Some have never tried to recover from alcoholism before and some have been in almost every treatment centre in the London area.

The unit is run in such a way that the boundaries between clients and staff are minimal. All people are broken, whether clients or staff, and in our love and commitment one to another, we find strength and healing. Acceptance lies at the heart of this community and, as long as the residents remain alcohol- and drug-free, they can have a home for life.

In our society, only the reasonably strong or the well-defended survive – those who cannot are relegated to shop doorways or park benches. Stonhouse Street is an oasis where non-survivors are welcomed. It has shown me that if people cannot survive ‘out there’, we need to create places where they can survive, places where the fragile, broken and vulnerable can live to their full potential, places where to succeed means simply to be yourself.

It is easy enough to welcome newcomers into that environment – the real challenge is in sustaining that welcome. Deeply-wounded individuals cannot contain their inner pain and as alcoholism and emotional deprivation usually go hand-in-hand, it can feel as though you have spent your entire day with twenty-five, adult-sized, emotionally-disturbed children, all demanding that their needs be met instantly. Let me give you an example of the constant pressures at Stonhouse Street. It was 9 am and I was on the telephone trying to chase up George’s social security payment, the door-bell was ringing, an ex-resident Geoffrey (no longer sober) was on the pavement attempting to smash our shatter-proof windows, two residents were shouting at Geoffrey, telling him to go away in Glaswegian, and George was repeating like a mantra ‘Get them to send my money now!’ This was a fairly typical start to the day. I told the man at the dole office to send the money or I would have to be sedated.

So why work there? I will tell you why – Raymond, who talked non-stop, very rapidly with a Belfast accent and was too anxious to sit down (he paced up and down constantly), suffered a life of tormented guilt because he didn’t stay to protect his mother when his father attempted to kill her with a red-hot poker. He was eight-years old at the time. Cheryl had had two alcoholic parents and fended for herself from a very early age. She was asked to leave the Centre as she was drinking alcohol again. We sat in a doorway. She was drunk and very distraught and all her belongings were in a black bin liner. We cried together and she produced from the bin liner a bottle of Chanel No 5 (the real thing). She called herself the most up-market dosser in Clapham. And she really was!

Have I welcomed the stranger? I hope so – believe me, I tried. I hope I welcomed the stranger just as I was welcomed by Millie when I felt so unprotected that first morning. She showed me that I have no need to keep ‘crossing over’ to the other side. She knew how to make a-person-without-a-teapot feel wanted. §


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