I’m not going to write a Christmas post here this year. The lovely people at Threshold’s Short Story Forum have printed a piece I wrote about Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story so that can serve for my thoughts on Christmas. Instead I’m posting about something very important and very close to my heart. I have been running a book group set up by City Reads at The First Base Centre in Brighton for the past eighteen months. I have really enjoyed working there but I feel it is time to move on so I recently hosted my last session (someone else is taking it over) however, I do want to highlight the work being done there.
First Base is part of Brighton Housing Trust. It is a drop in centre for those people around the city who find themselves without proper housing. First Base staff work tirelessly with their clients offering them practical help finding accommodation, health care, applying for benefits and training, anything to get people off the streets and into safety. Part of what they do is to provide cultural activities to help with the sheer boredom of being homeless, hence the book group. There are also classes in creative writing, photography, art and crafts and cookery. It is an amazing organisation and during my time there several members of the group were housed and well on the way to getting control of their lives back.
Let’s get something clear right away, homelessness is not a choice. Forget what certain people try to tell you, no-one lives on the street or in a hostel because it’s easier, it isn’t. No-one is there because they are too lazy to work or because they think the world owes them a living. Being on the street is generally about circumstance. Maybe it is the only option against a life of abuse. Maybe they lost their job, couldn’t afford the rent and didn’t have a loving family to catch them when they fell. Maybe they are an ex-con who can’t get a job, have psychological or physical problems, were shifted around a series of children’s homes until they were of age; there are as many reasons as there are individuals, every single one has their own unique story.
Okay, so sometimes it’s down to addiction, drugs or alcohol, and often they don’t seem that interested in giving up but seriously, it’s cold and dangerous out there – wouldn’t you want to block it out? Haven’t many of us had a drink as a way of coping with the stresses of life? What would happen if you kept on drinking, if that coping mechanism became the problem itself? And what if you didn’t have anyone to tell you to stop? Then what?
I also think that if the country carries on as it is doing there will be many more people on the street. People just can’t cope with the discrepancy between income and outgoings: the bedroom tax, fuel inflation, it’s all too much. Circumstance can change in a matter of weeks, never more so than now with the gap between rich and poor ever-widening. To use the National Lottery slogan, ‘it could be you,’ only in this case it’s not about winning a fortune.
This post isn’t about creative writing but in my experience most stories begin with the author asking, ‘what if?’ Give it a try, invent a chain of events that ends with you having no choice but to sleep rough and then think about how you would get back on track. First Base is one of the organisations that can help. Every day in the run up to Christmas Brighton Housing Trust is circulating the story of one of their clients, to let people know how much homelessness is about circumstance. To read these stories go to the BHT website, Facebook page or Twitter feed.
On occasion, when I have mentioned volunteering at First Base, people grimaced; I have even been told that the homeless are scum. There is certainly a lot of fear when they cross our paths. I’ll admit it, I was scared too, going into First Base for the first time and not knowing what to expect. It’s lively that’s for sure, we had a few disagreements in the group, sometimes the reading was punctuated with loud snores, or barking dogs or shouting from elsewhere in the building but in the main the people I met at First Base were intelligent, ordinary people who were down on their luck and just wanted to be treated like human beings. One of my group gave me a thank you card when I left and one of the things she thanked me for was the weekly conversations and the laughs. It’s not too much to ask is it?
If solutions for homelessness interest you (and I think they must if you have read this far) check out the new housing initiative in Brighton’s Richardson’s Yard designed by QED Property Solutions. It looks amazing, but remember there are at present only 36 units planned and the last city council count estimated that there could be up to 100 people sleeping in doorways and hundreds of others in transient emergency accommodation such as hostels and shelters.
First Base has a wish list with Amazon featuring essential items for the coming winter: hats, coats, socks, thermals, if you are buying something on site please add something from their list, items cost as little as 79p. If you live in Brighton you can donate items directly. And if you don’t want anything to do with Amazon there are hundreds of homeless charities out there who could do with a little help. My good friend Alice Cuninghame has a short story in the anthology Stories For Homes the proceeds of which go to Shelter, I think it makes a great Christmas present and not just for the person who unwraps it. If the weather forecast is right we’re in for a worst winter in decades and it’s going to get dangerously cold out there very soon.
I leave you with this short film, which went viral on social media recently, because it perfectly illustrates how easily we are shaped by circumstance. Merry Christmas x