Groups like The Invisibles are the beating heart of raw compassion for our neighbours living on the streets

Writer John-Paul Clark, who penned the Homeless in Glasgow series, takes a trip to Glasgow's Cadogen Street to see compassion in action

THE homeless are currently getting a lot of love from some parts of society but it is only with community action groups that this love is unconditional.

Registered charities receive funding from authorities like Glasgow City Council, which means they must follow certain guidelines. This curtails just how much help they can offer. However, community groups, like those ever present at Cadogan Street in Glasgow’s city centre, are always there to lend a hand no matter what the council or government think. 

For the past few weeks one of these groups, The Invisibles, has taken me under its wing. Cadogan Street is where most of the soup kitchens – and groups like Help 4 The Homeless, which is there on a Thursday – in Glasgow operate, and they feed hundreds of people every night. 

“I started The Invisibles because, with nature of my job on the railways, I noticed more and more on the streets rough sleeping, especially younger people.” Dermot Hill

The Invisibles' focus is on providing clothes, shoes and toiletries. The group was founded by Dermot Hill after he became alarmed at the ever-increasing presence of the homeless in and around the city centre.

He says: "I started The Invisibles because, with nature of my job on the railways, I noticed more and more on the streets rough sleeping, especially younger people.

"I arranged a meeting with some likeminded people and The Invisibles was born. When we started we were very naive, but eventually people with better knowledge came along and we began to move in the right direction.

"Things have grown massively since and we now have our own van and storage unit and we are in attendance down at Cadogan Street every Wednesday distributing various clothes and toiletries to people. If it wasn’t for a great bunch of volunteers The Invisibles would never have succeeded."

In these times of neoliberalism, where communities and trade unions have been ripped apart, grassroot activism is becoming increasingly prevalent and, for me, is the new heart of leftwing politics. 

Inside The Invisibles’ van

The mainstream left of today, dominated by the chattering middle-class, is something I have never felt represented by, so when the chance to get involved with The Invisibles arose I gratefully jumped at it.

The members of such groups may have been trade union leaders had they been around in another era, but instead these socialists operate on the outskirts of society bringing relief to those sunk by HMS Austerity.

I met one who has helped massively, Michelle McFarlane, through following St Rochs FC and she took me down with her to Cadogan Street. The street itself is the premises of the Glasgow City Mission, which is open Monday to Friday from 10am-10pm, providing sustenance and support to the homeless. Hence, it is the perfect place for anyone looking to reach the homeless.

The City Mission’s support, however, is billed as Christian care and therefore not for everyone. Likewise, you can only work or volunteer for them if you are a person of faith.

On my first night in attendance there was a sea of bodies mulling around the soup kitchen, which is run on a Wednesday by students from Glasgow University. The first thing I noticed upon arrival were the desperate, wild and needy eyes of the homeless. 

In these times of neoliberalism, where communities and trade unions have been ripped apart, grassroot activism is becoming increasingly prevalent and, for me, is the new heart of leftwing politics. 

I myself had walked around with the same look for over a year so I knew it well. I quickly got speaking to some of them and heard their stories. Everyone I spoke to had apparently been to the council’s homeless headquarters and been told there was no accommodation available. This happened to me before them and evidently is still happening today.

My life on the streets lasted three weeks because one of the caseworkers from the Easterhouse homeless services had informed me off the record that all I needed was a lawyer’s letter and I would get a bed in a hostel. 

Most of those I spoke to didn’t know this and hopefully went on to seek out a letter, but a few were already aware and understandably struggling to get to Shelter or Govan Law Centre to see a lawyer during office hours. When you are sleeping outside in the freezing cold (skippering) then keeping track of time and meeting appointments is challenging. 

From experience, I believe the council has deliberately created a system that obfuscates homeless applicants and deters them from getting this letter and shelter.

Of this, Michelle says: "We listen to and engage with these people who are at their wits end with the system in Glasgow. I was shocked to learn that people are skippering due to not knowing their rights."

The members of such groups may have been trade union leaders had they been around in another era, but instead these socialists operate on the outskirts of society bringing relief to those sunk by HMS Austerity.

Most of the homeless at Cadogan Street had met with the Simon Community, which must be the biggest homeless charity in Scotland and receives a very significant amount of funding. It scours the streets looking for the homeless and sign posts them to the relevant authorities.

However, like the Glasgow City Mission, its help is conditional because it relies on funding. There are some sterling people among them, but because they work in tandem with authorities they are hamstrung, and perhaps misinformed.

One man we spoke to, Brian, was oblivious to his legal rights. I furnished him with some information and Michelle provided him with sleeping bags and clothes as he set off to hunker down for the night.

Another couple who Michelle had arranged to come down and meet her had been sleeping in a tent on Virginia Street for weeks on end – and may still be there as you are reading this. They all said they had been in contact with the Simon Community but somehow had fallen through the net.

"We're not experts in the homelessness sector nor are we funded by the government or Glasgow City Council, and never will be," says Michelle.

Everyone I spoke to had apparently been to the council’s homeless headquarters and been told there was no accommodation available. This happened to me before them and evidently is still happening today.

"Everything we do is in solidarity with those we meet. It's really frustrating when speaking to someone like Brian, who's sleeping in a car park, or M and J [the couple sleeping in a tent), in this city in 2017. It shouldn't be happening when millions of pounds of public money is awarded to large charities to prevent this."

As well as students from Glasgow University there were also students there from the Dental Hospital offering advice and dental products. However, I couldn’t see anyone from The Invisibles until Michelle nodded her head at a white van approaching. Once parked, two of the boys jumped out and Michelle took me over and opened it up.

Inside was a very tightly managed system with labelled cabinets running along the back wall containing specific items in each one. On the floor was a mass of trainers and at the back of the van a rack with various heavy winter jackets. The boys grabbed out a few folding tables and a canopy and got to work in setting up the stall.

Within minutes there were a mass of folk surrounding the stall and binbags full of clothes were quickly rationed out. All the while a few others from the group were mingling among the throngs looking out for those without adequate clothing or wearing ill-fitting shoes.

Once such people are identified they are taken over to the van and kitted out. I watched Michelle wrestle a man’s wet jacket off his back and then fashion him with a brand new winter coat. People are given thermals, gloves, hats and anything else the team thinks might be useful in staving off the cold.

These people in Cadogan Street exist to bring relief to the homeless. They need a proper homeless system in order to go about their work unfettered and achieve their goal of eradicating homelessness.

The Invisibles is a collective made up of around eight people and they all have full time day jobs. Wednesday night is when they are on site, but they also give up a lot of time collecting and sorting donations in between.

I met lots of the other volunteers from different groups while down at Cadogan Street. A softly spoken woman named Jean is the matriarch figure who everyone warms to and has given over 20 years’ service to bringing relief to the homeless.

Another notable figure is Mel from Help 4 The Homeless who has completely and utterly dedicated her life to helping these people with her soup kitchen. Mel also works full time and started the group financed solely out of her own pocket, and still does so when needed.

Cadogan Street is right down on the Clydeside and perhaps an area some homeless people would like to avoid. Mel understands this and has volunteers searching the town looking for such folk, armed with hot meals.

Although Thursday is their night, Mel is down at Cadogan Street nightly helping in any way she can. On the night we spoke I helped her load a few things into her car and the whole vehicle was loaded with crates and different items from her homeless vocation. I left her at 11pm and she was driving off on various errands, picking up food parcels and the like, and said she wouldn’t be home until 2am.

READ MORE: John-Paul Clark: These are the heroes who've kept Britain's lights on amid a Tory onslaught

These people in Cadogan Street exist to bring relief to the homeless. They need a proper homeless system in order to go about their work unfettered and achieve their goal of eradicating homelessness.

This is a complex situation, but everyone can agree that building homes – as advocated by the likes of the Glasgow Homeless Network - would go a long way to those ends.

On Glasgow City Council’s part, creating proper temporary accommodation with correctly trained on-site staff to offer pastoral support to those landing homeless is also a must. 

The current stalemate of providing homeless accommodation in privately run hotels is eating all of its funds, and it's why the council has created a system in which it effectively evades its legal obligation to provide temporary housing for homeless people.

Until such times when the system is restructured we can all be thankful that the likes of The Invisibles and Help 4 The Homeless exist and make the lives of the homeless that little bit more sufferable.

Anyone looking to donate to these two groups can find them on Twitter or Facebook.

Pictures courtesy of John-Paul Clark

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