Lonely this Christmas?
As I set off for a Carol Service at Swarby this afternoon, the snow was coming down in huge wedges, almost blotting out the road and sky. The little country lanes were treacherous, but eventually I made it to this delightful little ancient church and was warmed to see it full of young and old alike. We sang carols merrily, heard those evocative stories of the first Christmas and ‘oohed and aahed’ just a little bit as the youngsters played guitars, read funny verses and cheered after every carol (a small baby girl at the back!). This is what Christmas is about, I thought.
I then got in the car to make the journey to a, by now dark, dank and extremely cold, Lincoln. To the church of St Mary le Wigford to be exact, where Lincoln U2charist is housed. Each sunday night, the church hall plays host to about eighty or so homeless people and Liz Jackson, the animator of the project, organised a full Christmas meal tonight. There were some twenty volunteer helpers, all dressed up in tinsel and Santa Claus hats, to greet the men and women who came in for, perhaps, the first warmth of the day. They are a very mixed bunch of people: some smartly dressed, others bedraggled and wet and in clothes that have seen many Christmasses. There are very young and very old, and the air in the hall seemed to go tangibly colder and damper as they moseyed in. The evening began with an air of diffidence and a quietness and reserve brought on by having to brave the unpleasant conditions. As the tea and coffee warmed our clients, and the soup, turkey, trifle and mince pies invigorated their hearts, there began to be chatter and some laughter in the air. It doesn’t take much to resurrect people. The men and women were entertained royally by John Allison (who sang the UK’s most succesful ever Eurovision entry in 1961-check him out on YouTube-
www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVY4vSvQbnO&feature=related ), who pops in most weeks, and then the Salvation Army Band struck up the familiar chords of Christmas. This was a raggle-taggle cross-section of humanity, but to a man and woman grateful for the experience whether server or served.
There are increasing numbers of people sleeping rough in Lincoln: there is a Polish tent village by the river, others sleep in doorways or shed or garage, others ‘sofa surf’. A young man and woman I talked to had been evicted and were sleeping on an old mattress under Pelham Bridge; ‘the rains alright, said the man, but the snow blows under the bridge-we’re forever wet and cold’. Official counts put the numbers of people sleeping rough as very low: those who work with them set the numbers very much higher. If you are homeless, you cannot receive mail, save money or keep possessions safe. The low self -esteem brought on my homelessness can lead to self harm, drug and drink abuse, depression and crime. If you have no home to look forward to, you cannot get yourself out of the downward spiral: this, quite pleasant and ordinary looking couple, were in just such a spiral and can see no way out. There are many reasons why people become homeless, but those who know tell us that mental illness, substance abuse and relationship breakdown are the main causes.
I write about this now to highlight the fact that the problem of homelessness is not getting better, far from it-it is getting worse, and the victims are largely unseen, unrecognised and unloved by the rest of society. There is something that can be done immediately and effectively: BeAttitude (the offshoot of U2charist Lincoln that works with the homeless-follow the U2charist link to the right) could do with any clothes that will help the men and women keep warm: offers of financial support will help us feed them regularly and well, and a thought for the homelessness when you come to vote this next year might help as well.
My afternoon showed me that there are quite definitely two sides to Christmas, and two sides to our society. There will be a service in Lincoln Cathedral on 31st January at 6pm, when all the churches of Lincoln come together to focus on the plight of the homeless. Come along!