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Homeless were ‘my teachers’

14 December 2012

The number of rough sleepers helped by St Martin-in-the-Fields has grown by a half in the past year. Samuel Wells spent the night on a London pavement


Zipped up: the Revd Dr Samuel Wells prepares to sleep rough

Zipped up: the Revd Dr Samuel Wells prepares to sleep rough

I slept on a pavement in central London on Thursday of last week. I joined two companions who have done it, on and off, for half their lives. For me, it was out of a commitment to being with those I believe are closest to God's heart, in whom Jesus promises to be made known. For them, it was out of necessity - or, perhaps more accurately, a defiant, resourceful determination not to let the challenges of their lives subdue their spirit.

I met them through the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, which assists 200 people every day and 4000 every year. Most find employment and housing; only a minority spend a second night out. There is an even split between those who come from London, from the rest of the UK, and from Europe (about 28 per cent each); and slightly fewer from outside Europe. The alarming fact is that the number of these rough sleepers has increased by 50 per cent in the past 12 months. So I was joining a trend.

There is a hierarchy among those who sleep outside, as there is elsewhere in life. My companions would not accept handouts, although they took me to the places where food was easy to come by. They would not sleep just anywhere, although they showed me people who were doing so. They would not engage in anti-social behaviour: on the contrary, they took me on a tour of baristas, shopkeepers, and hoteliers who each owed them a favour, and were glad to help out by minding a sleeping bag or offering some hot water.

My companions were adept, resilient people, who had found a way to turn their wits into forms of protection and information which the local business community were grateful for. This is a grey economy: and these people, to survive, have had to learn how to function within it.

What I had was precisely what most people who sleep rough do not have: a network. As I prepared to go out that night, I was reminded of Lord Mountbatten's remark about Gandhi: "You've no idea what it costs to keep the old man in poverty." I had many people going out of their way for me - most of all, my two companions, who patiently took me under their wing.

These are people who have survived the worst that life can bring: being a refugee, losing both parents when young, being neglected by family, being ostracised because of racism, coming to terms with an addictive personality. Their lives showed me the panoply of pressures that finally force people on to the streets.

Like more than 60 per cent of people who sleep outside, they had been through a period in their life when they had been drinking six or more units of alcohol a day. When you are as cold as we were that night, and you are tormented in sleeplessness by memories of betrayal, and worse, it is not hard to see why alcohol might seem a ready panacea.

The night out showed me that the greatest poverty is lack of companionship. Almost 40 per cent of the people the Connection encounters say that they spend their days entirely alone.

What the Connection offers people in this kind of crisis is help to find housing, to begin work in the regular economy, to stabilise their health, and to build their confidence. Indeed, the Connection is continuing to work with my companions to find a route away from the streets.

But what I discovered in sleeping out is that the most important thing is to be with people even in the worst places in their lives, and to celebrate the wiles and resilience that make their lives liveable at all. That night, my companions were not "the poor" or "the homeless": they were my teachers.

Maybe, when I make the Christmas appeal next year, I will not be saying: "This is what these people need from you," but: "See how much these people have to give you."

The Revd Dr Samuel Wells is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields. To give to the Radio 4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal for the Homeless, phone 0800 082 82 84.

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