CommonSpace columnist John-Paul Clark – who penned a 10-part diary last year detailing his experience of homelessness – brings an insight into the bond between community and those in need
EARLIER this month, as I arrived at the funeral of a man fallen to the homeless system, David Wilson, and recognised many in attendance, it suddenly struck me that I am still completely immersed in a world I thought I had escaped.
Having lived the injustices and pitfalls of the homelessness in Glasgow I couldn’t turn my back and in recent months have volunteered with The Invisibles and Every Community Holds Opportunity (Echo), as well as visiting other groups for journalistic endeavours.
My own dalliance with rough sleeping occurred in summer months and fortunately I had the capacity to isolate myself away from danger inside a tent in fields miles away from dodge. That sheltered me from the realities, but this winter I have witnessed what can only be described as a systematic bloodbath. The numbers of people dying are disturbing.
READ MORE: Homeless in Glasgow, parts 1-10
This month alone I have heard of three deaths and there may have been more. Hours before I started writing this I stood with colleagues from Echo as a man came in from the street in a terrible condition and within minutes was having some sort of seizure. We did our best until the ambulance arrived, but others aren’t caught in time and a man died at the premises the week before after we had left for the night.
The homeless system in Glasgow is broken. All the political parties passing the parcel are guilty. The SNP is, depending on how you think, unwilling or unable to address the housing crisis, while Scottish Labour ran the council’s existing infrastructure into disrepair. Meanwhile, assaulting peasants is a traditional pastime for the Tories. The end result is the carnage Glasgow is currently witnessing, and it seems certain in the current political quagmire nothing is changing anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the admirable relief effort running under the belly of Glasgow’s trendy metropolitan streets deserves more attention. Dozens of different community action groups and charities are operating to clothe and feed the neediest and doing the work most would expect of the government. I have met many of these venerable people and am proud to have played a part in the formation of Echo.
I was asked along to help by Sharon Riley, who I met while she was volunteering at one of the soup kitchens on Cadogan Street. Every night of the week the street is alive as the homeless congregate in the one area of the city where they are always welcomed.
However, they tend to quickly drift off once they have been fed and watered. Riley saw an opening and decided to create an indoor soup kitchen at The Lodging House Mission’s (LHM) premises on East Campbell Street near the Barrowlands.
“The five members who set up this group had all known each other from working together at an outdoor soup kitchen,” Riley explains. “We all felt it a better idea to look for somewhere indoors to give people a little more dignity and respect and for us to be able to sit down and get to know them in a more relaxed environment.
“The LHM have been incredible. We feel very privileged to have this opportunity and are thankful to them for taking a chance on us.”
By day the LHM runs a soup kitchen, but tries to have the centre open to other groups, and therefore allowed Echo to use the building on Tuesday nights. We piled into the premises in late October with a lot of energy but no idea of how things would play out.
In those initial weeks we were struggling to get 20 people in the doors. Homeless people aren’t typically to be found on social media, therefore word of mouth is about the only means of contacting them and things were slow to take off.
“Remembering back to the first few weeks, we felt really quite disheartened when only a handful of people turned up,” Riley says. “However, at least we provided essentials to the handful who needed it.”
“By spending time and getting to know these individuals we look to seek out their talents and get them back on their feet.” Sharon Riley
And then a night shelter opened in November. The shelter also operates out of the LHM and is run by Glasgow City Mission in the winter months, offering rough sleepers the chance to come in out of the cold for the night. With this, more people started coming to the LHM in the evening and, in turn, we began to feed more people every week.
Seeing significantly more destitute people appearing each week was not cause for celebration, but we knew they were out there so were glad to reach them.
Things took off from there on in and the vision of the founding members of Echo really began to take shape. Entertainment was arranged and we have had comedians and musicians come along, as well as a performance from the talented youngsters at Royston Youth Action. We provide a three-course meal every week and, in this setting, we have been able to build up a rapport with people and are trying to help them turn their lives around.
Sharon says: “Food definitely brings people together and attracts them to come to places. We want to provide really good nutritious meals and great entertainment which hopefully should bring community spirit and a sense of belonging. By spending time and getting to know these individuals we look to seek out their talents and get them back on their feet.”
“One thing we can say about Echo is that we don’t label people as this can have a negative impact by institutionalising them, which can make it more difficult for people to move on,” Riley says. “We want to help people mix better, make new friends, give them a focus and challenge themselves all while keeping active and healthy.”
Gerry Cinammon joins an illustrious list of people who have helped Echo. Muhammed Sultan from Charcoals restaurant donates a curry every week and we have had cash donations from the likes of Elite Fitness Gym in Uddingston, as well as the public.
One success story in particular stands out, from an open mic night. A man got up and stole the show, singing and playing guitar and captivating all in attendance. He had previously been in bands before falling on hard times and Echo set about trying to harness his talent and launched an appeal to get him equipment.
Gerry Cinnamon, a hugely successful Scottish singer-songwriter, saw this online and got in touch to donate an amp and other materials. Sunny Govan Radio also agreed to bring him to their studio to perform.
Gerry Cinammon joins an illustrious list of people who have helped Echo. Muhammed Sultan from Charcoals restaurant donates a curry every week and we have had cash donations from the likes of Elite Fitness Gym in Uddingston, as well as a steady stream of donations from the public.
Riley has even had to reject donations on occasion just because of storage issues. Over Christmas the outpouring of humanity and people willing to donate was truly humbling.
Riley agrees but is also effusive in praise of the people who volunteer at Echo. As well as the five members who originally started the project there are now another handful of us who contribute.
“Every volunteer shows the upmost dignity and respect, which is showing people that we really do care.” Sharon Riley
She says: “Our main support has been our volunteers who have been hard working, reliable and have an incredible passion for helping people. Every volunteer shows the upmost dignity and respect, which is showing people that we really do care. As the weeks have passed they have grown, too, and are encouraged to also take a meal and sit down and get to know people.”
Echo takes on fundraising event efforts, like when some of the volunteers climbed Ben Nevis and raised £850. Riley also arranges weekly walking sessions for those who use the service to give them the opportunity to get fit and socialise. These walks take place every Sunday morning at Glasgow Green and anyone is welcome to come along. Echo would like to take people further afield to climb the Munros but needs transport. Riley is currently reaching out to various agencies and companies for help to facilitate this.
In the six months or so Echo has been open, it has come a long way. In recent weeks it has fed 60-70 people every Tuesday and that number will only increase as the word on the street spreads. LHM has asked the service to do more nights and Echo is currently considering this.
All of us would rather our service isn’t required but while it is we will continue to be there for Glasgow’s most marginalised.
Of the future, Riley says: “We would love to look back and see how many people we have really helped and also learn from the past year to make us even better. We need to keep listening and looking at the gaps. It would be great to have increased nights, more activities, and to generally build on the community we have already created.”
Anyone looking to donate or volunteer with Echo can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07391 728012.
Pictures courtesy of Echo
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