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Down and Out in Newcastle and Cambridge

Ollie Batchelor, Cathedral congregant and a driving force behind the Cathedral’s Lantern Initiative, writes…

There has been a lot of talk about heroes over the last couple of months of lockdown, with ripples of recognition for essential workers spreading beyond just those in the NHS where it first began, to include care workers, supermarket staff, bus and train drivers, postal and delivery workers and refuse collectors. We remain truly grateful to them all for keeping so many of our normal services going, sometimes at great cost. A group of people rarely mentioned however, are staff who care for and support the homeless and marginalised in our communities. We know some of those who are suffering homelessness in Newcastle as they are part of Cathedral life, enjoying the place for its quiet space, the safety and sanctuary it provides and the friendship that it offers. So whilst closure has been hard for all of us who visit and value the Cathedral, it has also been difficult for them – and for those in the Cathedral who feel a sense of responsibility for them and concerned about how they would survive and manage in these difficult times.

We have been thrilled to hear therefore, how wonderfully the homelessness charities in Newcastle took the initiative in the very early weeks of lockdown. Led by Changing Lives and all working together, they set out to provide accommodation for everybody who was rough sleeping in the City, accessing bedsits and flats for them from private companies and landlords. Within a matter of a week or so everybody was accommodated, with daily support provided from staff to help them cope with a strange new experience, and one that not all were ready for. Lack of opportunities to beg or raise money any other way and shortages in drug supply meant that those who were previously reluctant or too preoccupied to be accommodated were willing to take up the offers they received. Relaxation of council rules which do not allow for people from outside of Newcastle to be accommodated here helped enormously too, as did changes in rules for failed asylum seekers without recourse to public funds. In hostels and independent housing projects, staff continued to work, trying to help their clients to understand the need for handwashing and social distancing and remaining indoors as much as possible. Incredibly, charities reported that no employees absented themselves because of worries about the virus and staff sickness levels stayed the same as normal. These homelessness charity workers truly are another group of unsung heroes of COVID-19.

In February we had the pleasure of hosting The Revd Jon Canessa for a month, during which time he shared about his work amongst homeless people in Cambridge, as well as listening to stories about our work with rough sleepers at the Cathedral.

It has been a delight to remain in contact with Jon who has been very busy over the last few months. As in Newcastle, it was the charities which led the way in Cambridge, looking at the various options to accommodate homeless people as a matter of urgency. Jon himself was very involved with these discussions. The amount of available private rented accommodation in Cambridge is very limited because of the high student population, but instead they have managed to accommodate people in hotels and in at least one University Hall of residence, empty since the students returned home. Since then, Jon has been busy taking breakfasts and packed lunches out to the various sites, food having been provided by many different Cambridge charities and churches. He has many useful conversations and new opportunities to work in these different settings. A different solution, but wonderfully everybody in Cambridge who was sleeping rough is also accommodated.

These are unprecedented times, as we have been told so often over the last eight weeks. Unprecedented too, is the accommodation of almost all homeless people across the UK. That’s all 4,266 of them, if 2019 figures are to be believed. Not a lot, but apparently, an insurmountable problem prior to the COVID-19 lockdown. But what will happen when the lockdown ends, when the rules that prevent charities offering housing to people in need are re-imposed, when the hotels and Universities want their accommodation back?

It is exactly 80 years since the publication of the first Penguin edition of George Orwell’s classic Down and Out in Paris and London. In the last few pages he sums up his experience of being homeless in London and the various bleak options that exist, including sleeping on the Embankment, “the world that awaits you if you are ever penniless”. So much has changed in society over the course of those 80 years, yet so little has changed too. Orwell would surely be shocked to find people still penniless sleeping rough. People who are pushed out, who have dropped out or who have fallen out, are still treated with suspicion and a response based upon merits and fault rather than compassion and mercy. During lockdown much has been made of the fact that the NHS was one of the flowers that grew from out of the ashes of the Second World War, with hopes expressed that there may be a similar flowering of community compassion and a greater equality within society after lockdown ends and we return to whatever world awaits. But the NHS and the other welfare reforms after the War did not arise without people advocating for this, lobbying and demanding that those in power provided a different road map. “See, I am doing a new thing”, God declares in Isaiah. Let us hope, pray and work to help fulfil that new thing for all those who are on the margins of society, the people who are so close to God’s heart.