We take a look at the rising problem of homelessness in the UK
"WE'RE all in the gutter," quotes Bertie in a sweeping theatrical manner, "but some of us are looking to the stars. That's Oscar Wilde that is," he tells us while he strums his battered guitar and sings a little ditty to the passers-by.
Bertie was one of a crowd of people that Mary Golding and Lisbeth Johnson bumped into when they decided to base their cell group on the streets of Leicester city centre. The following article contains several extracts from Lisbeth's diary.
"Cold pavements to sit on, faces lit up by shop fronts, wet sleeping bags and thick gloves foraging for squashed cake in plastic bags. More often than not it was just a cup of tea and something to eat and we would move on.
"Just sometimes, though, the bravado would slip and bright jocular conversation would dissolve into heart-rending stories full of desperation, so many unfulfilled longings, deep-seated regret or anger and bitterness.
"We met people who once led 'normal' lives finding themselves homeless with addictions and mental health problems or people ending up homeless because they had these problems already..."
The unwelcome turbulence in global financial markets of the last few years and the resultant downturn in the UK economy have brought, in their wake, multiple redundancies and a consequent surge in house repossessions and homelessness.
According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML), repossessions are likely to rise from 40,000 in 2011 to 45,000 in 2012. Recent figures from the Moneyplus Group website revealed that in the frst three months of 2011 a total of 9,100 people were evicted from their homes as a result of defaulting on their mortgage.
We cannot underestimate the damage homelessness has on children's lives
Homelessness, tragically, also affects children. Kay Boycott, the director of communications, policy and campaigns for Shelter, the housing and homelessness charity, said, "We cannot underestimate the damage homelessness has on children's lives. They often miss out on vital schooling because they are shunted from place to place and many become ill by the poor conditions they are forced to live in."
What can be done? In recent years a number of ambitious projects have been launched around the UK to empower people to step out of the cycle of homelessness, worklessness, poverty and sometimes accompanying traps of crime and addiction.
Create is a new, innovative and award-winning social enterprise in the north of England, running top-quality food businesses where all profits go to funding an academy for training, providing work experience and creating jobs for people who have been homeless, marginalized or vulnerable in some way.
Create has a high degree of success in its aims. Jesus Life asked Linda McGowan, Strategic Director of Create, "What do individuals or organisations need to do to help homeless people climb out of destitution into a stable lifestyle and into work?" Linda, who is passionate about Create's vision, told us, "Encourage, challenge, take people out of their comfort zones and tell them not to be afraid to fail - we all fail sometimes. Balance encouragement with tough love and don't be afraid to do things differently."
Similarly, Katherine Nickoll, who is the Service Manager for Framework, a charity providing training and employment for homeless in the East Midlands, told Jesus Life that the majority
of her team are actually ex-service users and a key to success must be: "Dare to have ambition for people!"
What role can churches play in helping the plight of homeless people - and particularly, in this case, street homeless people?
Coventry Jesus Centre runs a "bond scheme" to enable people who are homeless to taste the benefits of a more stable lifestyle by accessing and holding onto private rented accommodation. The scheme has housed 151 people over the last seven years.
Val Hook, a support worker on the scheme, told Jesus Life that making it possible for people to find a home can be a "life changing and even a lifesaving experience - especially in winter when people sleep by the canal or in the woods.
"Finding a home gives homeless people a platform to change their way of life, a belief in themselves and a hope that they can lead a better lifestyle," says Val. "Some people can't detox or dry out until they have the security of a home.
"Homeless people are often allowed access to their children once they are housed or, in the case of some I know, can even have their children back. No one can apply for jobs without an address and I've known people find work once they have a roof over their heads. "
Lisbeth's diary continues:
"One man who had a searching heart confided in me why, after several occasions of me offering to pick him up for church, he wouldn't come: 'I stink, love, I get paranoid, I'd just stand out like a sore thumb, there's no way I could come to church'."
Lisbeth, happily, can relate more positive stories.
"We're sitting in the midst of a large group; plastic bottles of 'white lightning' are being passed around. The mood is light with plenty of jokes and larking around.
Len's in the middle of it all, the loudest and lairiest of them all; he's an intelligent bloke known well for his good nature and quick humour. We've known him for quite a while, an ex-service man who witnessed some terrible things whilst in action. As so many ex-soldiers in the same position Len ended up on the drink when leaving the army and eventually became homeless.
He come clean of his drugs, but had given his life to Jesus while in rehab and had gone on to Bible college to study to be a minister
"I've got to get myself straightened out - I've got a daughter who's disabled and she needs me," Len told us once. He asked if we would pray for him as he already had some belief in God.
Tonight Len plonks himself down next to us:
"You're never going to believe this, ladies, I've got myself booked up to go into a rehab and guess what," he beamed, "it's a Christian one! Thought you'd like that!" he winks.
We never saw Len again, but heard recently that not only had he come clean of his drugs, but had given his life to Jesus while in rehab and had gone on to Bible college to study to be a minister. I enjoyed seeing people's faces as the news got bandied around.
"Len? Are you sure?" One of his old friends said incredulously, "Blimey, well if Len can make it, any of us can."