This doesn’t happen everyday.
A homeless service, a place that can be chaotic or tranquil, that can be an end of a particular line or the beginning of hope for some.
Seriously, it can be a grim place to work but it can also be an uplifting place to be around.
Let’s be honest straight away, let’s get this out front: demons reside here. There’s the demented fiend of addiction, a slavering, gibbering gremlin that whispers constantly in the ear. The ogre of abuse is here; of psychological torture and of physical, wrenching pain, an echo that may reverberate for a lifetime. There’s sickness – the palpable monster of something not right – both corporeal and in the mind. There are people here who have lived with all of these devils dancing around their lives, a bogey-man boogie-ing to a terrifying beat, jack-booting them into something that threatens to beat them.
But sometimes the people here can rise above a thousand cuts to a fragile soul. Sometimes they can supply their own balm, sometimes they need assistance in soothing a troubled and frenzied mind.
On occasion, a complete surprise can result in a dawning hope that it may not be too late; that we all can embrace our unique humanity and that we may actually have a chance of being the person we think we can be.
But that doesn’t happen every day.
Most days – like any job – the world of the disenfranchised is a mundane one. Most days, the people that live between the cracks just get on with their lot. We who work on the frontline, most of us consider it an honour to help in a small way. Maybe a kind word to a person who has struggled through a quagmire of negativity for what has felt like an aeon can lighten a soul’s burden, possibly just listening to the slings and arrows of misfortune which some have been constantly afflicted with (and which, by the way, can descend on absolutely anyone) is just the tonic for a beleaguered and tortured mind. We attend court, hospital, the police station, clinics, new apartments which are islands of shimmering hope in a dark sea of despair. We do this because we care but we also do it because sometimes an event can feel like we’re all in this together; that in this time of fear and mistrust, there still exists the milk of humanity which nourishes and bathes everyone who it touches.
Again, this doesn’t happen every day but yesterday it did and it was precipitated by a book.
Not a very important book. Not a book that will change mindsets or usher in revolutions. Not a book of poetry or songs of praise, not a book on great and inspirational figures in mankind’s brief but shining history. Not even a particularly well-written book. (Oh yes it was – Ed)
A book about football. About Liverpool Football Club, to be exact.
I was and am the author, an honour in itself, thanks to Paul, Chris and Daniel. But it was also my magnificent blessing that this book triggered an occasion which I will remember for the rest of my days.
Let me explain briefly and please allow me to set the scene. A house containing twelve apartments where homeless people live. Most are chaotic, some have huge issues. Some of these people, their only crime or mistake is being desperately unlucky. They have had their dignity shredded before their eyes and have still managed to go about their lives, not in expectation, but sometimes in stoic resignation or acceptance. Picture yourself here, a place where dreams can sometimes wither and die, where lights are often extinguished. Picture walking in here at night, with nowhere to go, having slept on the streets for a week. Feel the relief tempered with a dread fright of the unknown. Put yourself in the frayed shoes of someone who is told the rules of a building, that they could lose their bed if they leave a syringe on the floor. Imagine this is a completely new and devastating world; that you have never flirted or dallied with drugs, let alone the type that can be administered by a needle. Then you shuffle, tired and hungry, into a bed and, waking up later, you see by the eldritch moonlight another of the so called damned as they do what they have to do, what for some reason they are compelled to do, what they are hardwired to do. They inject and the needle hits the floor as they fall back and you look at them and realise that this is your life, your new life, and the life of driving a car and going to Tesco and picking up the kids is in your past, is dead, or at least dying, a breath that may never be exhaled again.
Could you bounce back?
On Wednesday morning, an older gentleman wanted me to sign the book on football I had written. Tony (name is obviously changed) is seventy and had lived in Sweden for years, having met his wife there and raised his three boys. Following a breakup a decade ago, he moved back to Ireland but found that the government, initiated by an economic crash, had become less of a welfare state than he had previously imagined. He eventually found himself without a regular place to call home and then, tragically, dementia reared its belligerent and craven head. Tony arrived to live with us a few months ago and has since shown remarkable fortitude and resilience and has been able to bounce back, to a degree. Tony is frail and his grey hair is wispy and baby-like but he carries himself with dignity and with grace. He never saw himself in this situation – in a building where the tragedy of drug addiction lives side by side with mental illness and people just trying to recover – but gets on with his life as best he can. But Tony is no longer the confused and bleak scarecrow that he was. He is hoping to move into an apartment soon, has worked closely with us and managed to take regular medication to offset the desolation of Alzheimer’s, or its ilk.
He is a Manchester Untied supporter and idolizes Zlatan. Tony wrote a piece in a newsletter I do in the service, where he waxed lyrical about his hero. It was the writing of a talented and capable mind and yesterday we slagged each other about our relative club’s chances in the league.
He asked me to sign his book and I wrote ‘Up Zlatan’ beside my name.
The organisation I work for ordered ten copies of A Banquet without Wine and, unbeknown to me, decided to mark the day that they would be given out to our guys who wanted them. A meeting was called and our residents were told that it was obligatory that they attend. Normally, this is cause for a great deal of alarm as it usually means that we have no choice but to put punitive measures in place for some reason. I sat there with the lads and ladies that are currently struggling through their lives and I felt the palpable tension. Not anxiety over the prospect of a missed penalty or that a 2-0 lead may be eaten away or that Manchester United suddenly look like a side again. This was fear that a bed would be closed, that a human being would be consigned to walking the rain-washed and dark streets until exhaustion enabled a parody of sleep. This was real panic, not the strange species that we think we know.
But this was all washed away moments later. The spectre still hangs there, still hovers around the fringes of all of our collective consciousness. We who work there hate closing beds, those who we have to do this to dismayingly see the bleakness that all of our existences can become; we are as fragile as blown glass – all of us – as delicate as the wings of a butterfly and yet we can preside over another human being’s future with impunity? Not just horror, but folly.
But this was all forgotten as I squirmed in a haze of embarrassment, as my boss told the throngs of people gathered in the common area that a staff member had written a book. On Liverpool Football Club.
Goodwill was everywhere as I was asked to sign copies. Some wore the red of our club’s training tops. Adidas or Reebok. They held the book in their hands as photos were taken. They beamed at the camera as I sat in their midst, me now looking like the bewildered one, the guy who wasn’t sure how this train of events had unfolded. For perhaps a period of ten minutes, everything was forgotten. I forgot I was a staff member, my clients forgot they were in a homeless service. We were fleetingly all on the same page, all human beings just trying to do the best from the cards that had been dealt to us.
My boss took a picture which I truly wish I could share in the public domain. It shows fifteen individuals in a semi-circle, all clutching the book I wrote. Three, including myself, are members of staff and the rest are homeless people who have been through things that few of us can even imagine or contemplate. And it is almost impossible to separate staff from residents in this picture. There is a unifying smile on every face, a tangible contentment that leaps from the computer screen, an almost communal comradery. These people, these faceless few who most forget about, were genuinely happy for me and it transcended all of our lives; not the book, not any dubious achievement on my behalf. A sense of us. Of humanity together. That there is hope and empathy and a brilliant courage inherent in the human spirit.
I will never, ever forget that moment and, if I believed in such a place, I would say we all touched a little bit of paradise for a beautiful but all too transient moment.