Welcome everyone. This morning I’d like to start by reading some extracts from this journal, written by a former client of our outreach programme.
“You can’t sit there.” “Move along now.” “Go on. Off with you” and worse (a lot worse). That’s all I get all day. And night. I’ll sit down on some steps that I can see haven’t been swept all year, with leaves, cobwebs and grime in the corners, but no sooner has my bum hit the stone, then there’s some busybody, coming out with a mop or broom and sweeping me off. “Get off. You can’t stop there.” They’re all at it - doormen, security guards, receptionists and of course the police. “Move along there”. It’s a life of perpetual movement. We used to be called tramps and some days there’s not a lot less walking involved now that we’re called homeless.
These days you might not even notice at first glance that I’m a woman, which at times is no bad thing, but it’s not that long ago that I used to be respectable. Up until 2007 I was employed. I was an accountant, but my job went in some restructuring at the firm. I wasn’t the only one, another accountant and some support staff were surplus to requirements too. At that time I was also, what they call, a functioning alcoholic. I took on the accounts of a few private clients, but that didn’t bring much in and without my job I soon stopped functioning. There was a small hodgepodge of a shop near my flat. It sold matches and cat food, washing powder and pens. It had a sizeable display of hair clips for some reason. It was a bit like a market stall that had come in out of the rain. They also sold spirits cheaply, vodka with another (foreign) label under the one that looked a lot like a well known brand and litre bottles of sherry. An oddly old fashioned drink, that as far as I can tell is mainly consumed by inebriates and vicars. Incapable of work or very soon, much of a routine, I couldn’t pay my rent and after about eighteen months (and hanging on to the bitter end) I was evicted. I’d sold anything I had of value, some jewellery, my television, two first edition books and a figurine that Mother had left me, so I didn’t leave much stuff behind.
That was a real turning point for me, not having anywhere to go or to come back to. I was able to sofa surf some nights, but I soon used up the few scraps of goodwill I could call on. No-one wants to put you up, if you pee on their rug overnight. There’s only so many times you can blame the dog. I’ll never forget the look of horror on Sheila’s face, after I’d vomited in her fireplace. I did the rounds of waiting areas in public buildings, the airports, the hospitals, some of the smaller train stations. I slept on The Night Bus and The Circle Line. After a while though, in the warmer closed in places, staff got to know my face and I’d barely have settled, before I was being shown the door.
These days I have temporary spots to kip that last for a while, but then something happens and I have to move on. Generally it’s better, safer, to strike out on your own. I had almost six weeks in a condemned building, it creaked ominously, but was dry on the ground floor. Until one of the chimneys came through the roof after a storm. I hunkered down in a derelict shop until one day I came back and found that the loose chipboard panel, that I could shift to get inside, had been replaced by a solid metal one, firmly attached and there were more over all the accessible doors and windows. So that was that. The loss of a good hat, some socks and a blanket which I’d left inside irked me, to say the least, although I still had an ancient sleeping bag and some cardboard tucked under my arm. I came past that way the other day and it’s a nail bar now.
Just lately I’ve been sleeping on a sort of concrete shelf that I found in the multi storey car park. It’s a quirk of the building, in the semi basement level and can’t be seen on their camera. Even so my cardboard has been getting cleared away this week, so someone knows I’m there. It’s usually pretty quiet until about six in the morning. Although some days all the bays are already full of cars when I wake up. I should say come to, I suppose, as sleeping that late means I’ve been able to get hold of some Tennents or other tins or a bottle of something. It’s the oblivion I crave, not the drink itself. That’s just the means to an end. Life goes on they say, but must it really? On and on, relentlessly onward.
I haven’t been truly happy since I was 12 years old. At Easter we’d had a lovely family holiday in the South of France. Mother looked thinner in her swimming costume and was sometimes too tired to join in with the fun. Dr.Bell had bad news when she saw him on our return. She had an operation and was wan but hopeful. However she soon worsened and on the hottest August day for 30 years, she died. My older brother Michael and I were sent away to boarding school, as Father couldn’t possibly run his business and look after us and the house. Arriving two weeks after the start of term, when friendships had already been established, I had a hard time fitting in and being academic, ‘a brainiac’, didn’t help. When I was nineteen Father emigrated to South Africa with his new wife and Michael, by then a budding mining engineer, soon followed in his footsteps. I was lucky, Father still covered my living costs while I was studying, but when I was qualified I was expected to ’stand on my own two feet’ as my brother had done.
Always rather shy, I discovered in my late teens that alcohol made me considerably bolder in social situations. As a young adult I started drinking to take the edge off my nerves at other times and before long I was drinking just to get through the day. One or two good friends noticed and were concerned. I sought help, had counselling, stopped drinking for months at a time, but then a lapse, maybe due to a particularly stressful time, would push me back to it. Other people got on with their lives. Contemporaries from school sent out wedding invitations, announced the births of children, advanced in their careers, but I seemed to be stuck in the same place. Alone, working, drinking, existing.
I do sometimes sleep in a shelter, but there’s no drinking on the premises and you can’t go in if you’re the worse for wear. An odd expression that, as I am the worse for wear even when sober, practically worn out. My clothes certainly are, but I can sometimes get replacements from The Salvation Army. Also a hot meal and two mornings a week it’s "Ladies Wash And Brush Up”, when I can use the showers at the resource centre. The Salvationists have got sobriety cracked, but then they also have God on their side. Major Braithwaite said to me “So have you, Meg. So have you.” She has a very kind face and immaculate fingernails.
I didn’t know if to read you that last bit as it mentions me, but chose to as it brings us full circle, back here to The Citadel. Some of you will remember Meg, or Phyllida Latham as she turned out to be, so having rediscovered her journal while tidying my office this week, I thought that you might like to hear about her life, in her own words. Unusually she’d asked me to look after a small bag of her belongings, including this notebook, shortly before she died in the winter of 2018. She was 49. So when the going gets tough on the outreach programme, when the night is long and cold and you feel discouraged, perhaps try to remember the words in this journal and reflect that each of us has their own story to tell, and their own journey to make through life.
Now let’s sing together, hymn number 142 - Onward Christian Soldiers.