On Saturday, 6th October I visited The Upper Room above the John Paul Centre in central Middlesbrough just round the corner from my office.
The centre is owned by the Catholic Church and houses the North Eastern Refugee Service, other agencies and charities. There’s a chapel and shop with religious cards and other merchandise. It’s a place people drop in either for weekday mass or just some contact and conversation in the coffee house.
Between 12.30 and 1.30 every Saturday in The Upper Room on the top floor, free food is provided for the homeless, the destitute – in fact for all- comers, whatever their need. On this particular Saturday, like all the others before, the customers congregate together in the back alley waiting for the session to begin and when the door opens they’re met by a volunteer on the door and each are given a raffle ticket to exchange for food.
They’d already settled in when I arrived. I climb the stairs to find a room packed with nearly 60 people, almost all men, but two or three women ranging from teenagers to pensioners gathered round the tables. Some have clearly come straight from the streets and haven’t slept indoors for some time and it’s self evident that for some it’s been a long time since they’d had the benefit of a shower or put on clean clothes. None of that bothers the volunteers or anyone else. Some of the guests are clearly malnourished and some toothless – old beyond their years.
One man presents as quite detached and troubled and shouts out quite randomly and then suddenly calls the room to order to ask for a moment of silence to mark, what I subsequently learn to be, the death of a local woman by the name of Barby Pigg, as he’d seen reported in the local newspaper.
I suspect like many others in the room, I totally misconstrue what he is trying to say and clearly get hold of the wrong end of the stick. So at the time I’m not at all surprised thinking his appeal simply in keeping with the general scene. I should have listened to him more carefully. So nobody bats an eyelid. He doesn’t get many to join in the observance. The volunteers carry on serving the sandwiches, the crisps and bananas. Some were keen for seconds.
One of the young lads hasn’t eaten since Thursday and others take a paper bag of extra sandwiches for later. It’s plain and obvious that very many of the diners have mental health problems and many have special needs – some severe.
My case worker Emma volunteers at The Upper Room and she’d arranged for me to go along where I am welcomed to the centre by two of the brilliant volunteers Gamini and Margaret. They speak with such warmth and compassion telling me that they rarely had any trouble. In fact, when someone occasionally forgot themselves and used bad language, more often than not, they corrected themselves and apologised. They tell me the clientele are all invariably very respectful and polite.
I look out on the packed room and it’s the saddest scene I’ve witnessed in many years. Dozens and dozens of people in crisis of one form or another. People who have hit rock bottom.Some quite dishevelled and some dirty – but not all by any means. Many unwell and everyone of them hungry, right in the heart of a town centre busy with shoppers and football fans having a pre-match pint.
As well as our established network of daily food banks, there’s a free food facility run by either churches or charities every day of the week in Middlesbrough, especially for those who simply can’t navigate through the foodbank processes. The demand is huge and the volunteers are many, and whilst we are yet to see the full impact of the roll out of Universal Credit that has just started locally, the various local agencies and voluntary groups know exactly what is coming and they are very very fearful.
I stay for much of the hour long session. There is no obvious counselling as such. Just a warm, loving welcome and good banter. Nobody is judged. Just a reliable service where people know they can come on a Saturday to get some food.
I come home to my uncomfortably comfortable home and weep. Anger, sadness and despair in equal measure. I simply cannot comprehend how in my town, that has contributed so much to our country, such vulnerable people are being treated and expected to survive. How they do survive is beyond me. Many are on the streets. It is plain and obvious that the state has completely failed them in all of their various crises and distress, so it falls to the churches, the charities and individuals to step in and do their best, which they do so devotedly week in week out, but with no sign of the fundamental causes of such poverty misery and isolation being addressed or tackled.
They have no voice but they are our brothers and sisters and it has to be our duty as a society to support them and to love them. There is a direct correlation between Government policy and the misery suffered by people down on their luck, or simply not blessed with the attributes needed to survive and thrive. The absence of the state in responding to such overbearing need is glaring.
There is great compassion from great numbers of individuals, but our local councils and other agencies are without the necessary resources or powers to properly respond.
Of course our consciences can be eased by condemning the poor as the authors of their own misfortune. That’s as easy as it is wrong, as well as being grossly unfair and cruel.
As with everywhere in our country, here in Middlesbrough there are many people who are doing well, who life has been kind to and they are doing fine and dandy thank you very much. Far too many others are struggling and working as hard as they can to hold it all together but live in fear of it all collapsing around them. But we all live cheek by jowl with the marginalised and isolated who are, for the main part, shunned and avoided by mainstream society. This is totally unacceptable as well as being completely heart breaking.
As Jeremy Corbyn said invoking the Gospel: “We will not walk by on the other side. We will treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves” Because, but for the grace of God, go I.
Dancing Teresa may be “Having the time of her life” but for millions of our fellow citizens that is not the case.
We need to rebuild a Britain that has an effective safety net of a social security and welfare system that catches people when they fall and is there for the vulnerable with supportive institutions that can provide the care, support and love that so many of our sisters and brothers need.
The challenge is immense but the need for a Labour Government to respond to this human tragedy has never been greater.