ELLIOTT KEENE

A Heart For The Homeless

Posted on: January 4, 2011

The harsh reality of Britain’s current recession can be seen by the amount of rough sleepers on the streets, some of which are facing their first winter in Bournemouth. I find out how local Christians are continuing to devote their time to create a safe and welcoming environment to those with many problems.

Muriel Blackman runs the ‘In Touch Mission’ based at Lansdowne Baptist Church, which provides meals and practical support to homeless people twice a week. “We have been extremely busy, serving about 100 on a Saturday with takeaways as well,” Muriel tells me as she prepares sausages in the small yet well used kitchen with Steve, a regular volunteer. “They’re lost until their found – and this is the place they can come and get fed. They won’t be criticised or judged, that’s the thing.”

As plummeting temperatures fell to as low as minus ten degrees last year, the Christmas period is a particularly tough time for the homeless. Many of us worry about what presents to get or how many mince pies to buy, often taking for granted the festive luxuries considered a necessary part of the holiday season. Unfortunately Christmas isn’t the same for everybody, besides having no family to turn to, homeless people suffer with the icy weather that can prove lethal when sleeping on the streets. “Nearer Christmas is always a difficult time for them, because a lot of them just hibernate” says Muriel. “We’ve got a Christmas dinner this coming Wednesday, I’ve got somebody to help me out for the day thankfully. We’re prepared for 150, but that’s in and out – it’s very chaotic here.”

Bournemouth’s Church Housing Association (BCHA) helps the homeless through the cold with their ‘Winter Watch’ scheme, providing much needed warmth and accommodation through St Paul’s night shelter. During the winter months last year 9 out of 10 beds were occupied every night, offering a mattress to sleep on for 153 different people – 67% of whom were local.

St Pauls, also situated in Lansdowne, contains a total of 36 beds available for 365 days a year at the price of £3 a night.  Bec Davison is the Deputy Director of Street Services Team, a service provided by the council that arranges referrals to the night centre alongside the BCHA. “Once we have tested their connections, people without a home can either be referred to treatment accommodation which offers beds, or move-on accommodation for offenders or those with mental health issues,” Ms Davison said.

Although successful, government funded schemes such as these displease Muriel, as the Church receives no funding and doesn’t require the homeless to pay for their support. “The BCHA changed because it was taken over by accountancy – it used to be about care in the community, and now it’s all about doing as much as you have to do to get government backing,” she tells me. “It’s just a gimmick, they won’t let them in without their 3 pounds, and I think that’s disgusting.”

Besides claiming that the priorities have changed, Muriel also criticises the long term affects that these schemes have on the homeless, “They allow people to have a flat, but they’re not capable of being independent having been so long on the street, but now surrounded by lovely things.” Despite clearly being a kind and charitable figure, I began to realise that Muriel’s 30 years of experience at the Baptist Church had given her a brutally cynical yet honest view about the recovery of people she has dealt with, often because of causes such as drug abuse. “If your an alcoholic, your an alcoholic until you die, whether you’re drinking or not. Yes I’ve seen a lot that are fine and they come and tell you they’re clean and then you see them again and their back down – so I’m careful over this success story business.”

Across the UK, the estimated amount of homeless households in 2010 is 65,000 – many of which represent what has been called the ‘useless demographic’ and are subject to a great amount of stereotype fuelled prejudice. Perhaps society finds it hard to think of homeless people as individuals, so overwhelmingly negative is the image portrait of their behaviour. “There are some bad ones amongst them – and the problem is that the rest of the community will get judged upon that,” claims Steve, Muriel’s right hand man.

“Everyone is a right or left turn away from homelessness. Unless you’re a multi-millionaire” Steve tells me, as he begins to give an insight into his personal experience of living on the street himself. “I was the manager for a supermarket before earning 20 grand a year, then got divorced from an abusive relationship. It makes you delicate, a bit like scar tissue, because you know that just one thing could go wrong.” Steve’s intriguing back story highlights that these are the sort of problems that homeless individuals start off with, that will trouble them even once clean from drugs or alcohol.

A ringing telephone interrupts the conversation, but is put onto answer phone. Some good Samaritan says he has made 40 mince pies for next Wednesday’s Christmas dinner.  The sense of community spirit amongst the committed charity givers stretches beyond the Baptist Church, of course. The Salvation Army stores in Winton and Boscombe organise weekly meal runs, as well as collect food to provide for those in need over the festive season through their Christmas Appeal, by encouraging residents to donate tins, dried foods and other essentials to the homeless.

Putting forward the criticisms that homeless people do little to get out of their dismal situation, and also common perceptions about homelessness being self inflicted, Muriel simply points out that “it could happen to you tomorrow.” “It’s ignorant people that say those things” she replies, “they are ignorant about it being an illness, alcohol is a real killer. Nobody wants to start that way, you never intend to become an alcoholic. They know where I’m coming from because I don’t hide the fact that I’m one of them, I relate to them perfectly. Also it reminds me of how I was. I can’t go down to Bournemouth square without hearing one shout out at me and say hello. They’re a lovely crowd, they’re the same as I am that’s how I see it.”

It seems that Muriel’s kind-hearted nature and strong Christian beliefs make her an admirable personality, “she’s so good with how she deals with them, she’s got a heart of gold,” Steve tells me as he kisses her forehead, “like mother Teresa she is.” I certainly felt her welcoming spirit as she offered me to join them at the Christmas dinner, cheerfully telling me that the “atmosphere is brilliant, they all love it.”

Similarly, when speaking to Bournemouth’s YMCA housing officer Louise Bird, it became clear what people get out of doing the job they do for the homeless. “I love to see and be a part of the change that can occur when people fully engage with the support offered through the YMCA” Louise says. The YMCA hostel, based in the town centre, takes clients from all walks of life between the ages of 16 and 60, many of whom are ex drug addicts, from a background of crime or broken down families. Louise works alongside many support workers and in-house counselling services that are available through the YMCA. “Over Christmas, we provide buffets and cakes and have presents that we give to each client.”

Whether seen as a client or a friend, many of the volunteers in the community build close working relationships to ensure the basic needs of the homeless are met. “I’m committed to do it, it’s a way of life” Muriel admits. “I genuinely do care about them and I love them – a lot of them anyway, some you could do without” she laughs. The homeless world must seem incomprehensible to those of us who live peacefully and securely within our homes, as there are many that are far less fortunate this Christmas – living in the same neighbourhood yet with very different experiences of what life has to offer. The level of devotion to such a cause is both touching and inspirational, something that Muriel clearly regards as her responsibility to deliver – “They’re my life in a sense because what else would I be doing?”

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3 Responses to "A Heart For The Homeless"

I got a bit emoitional reading this! makes you stop and think…
Well done Ells, it turned out to be a really passionate worth while visit! x

I know it’s really quite moving knowing how committed she is. Thankyou glad you enjoyed reading! xx

As a sad update to this post, Muriel passed away last week and her thanksgiving service was held today. The church was packed. She has left a hole in our community. http://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/10641164.Tributes_paid_to_Dorset___s____Mother_Teresa___/

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