‘The Police have cordoned off part of town’ the cabbie informed me. ‘Another homeless person has been stabbed’. My heart sunk. Was it someone I knew? Was it one of 57 West’s participants? Was it one of my friends? ‘They were stabbed four or five times. No-one is sure if they survived’ the cabbie added. ‘Not again’ were the only words I could muster. I was wondering if it was one of my friends? It had happened only 100 meters from where I minister at 57 West, the Baptist church and community café that works primarily with rough sleepers in Southend-on-Sea.
Four days ago another person sleeping rough had been attacked in a park. The Southend Echo reported ‘A homeless man was attacked and stabbed by a gang of nine, including three women, as he tried to sleep on a park bench. The vulnerable 27 year-old was targeted for no apparent reason while he was dozing in Southchurch park’. The report continued, ‘He suffered multiple wounds to his upper legs, back, buttocks and face, but still managed to stagger to a phone box… to call for help’.
As I attempted to process the horrible news that yet another person who slept on the streets had been targeted. I tried to process what I was feeling…
I was grieving for these lives that had been attacked. Sad for the person who was recovering from the attack four days ago. Sad for the person attacked last night. In shock that a group of people had tried to take what was most valuable from two vulnerable people – their lives. Sad for those who loved them – did they have family they were in contact with? And what would the tight-knit rough sleeping community in Southend feeling? Grief. Anger. Fear
I also felt anger towards the perpetrators who carried out these attacks. What would bring people to the point where they feel the need to attack vulnerable people in an unprovoked attack? Did they do it for the thrill, for power, or others corrupt reasons? What broken lives had they led to bring them to the point of violence?
Anger towards our broken society and humanity. Anger towards the many factors that are a cause of people sleeping on the streets. Abuse. Broken homes. Inability to access to education and health services. Mental health challenges. Benefit sanctions. Cuts in funding towards support services thereby reducing support. Michael Manning who co-ordinates the homeless charity Graih, writes:
‘Homelessness is not one thing, but a symptom of a whole cancerous mass of causes gnawing away at the fabric of our society and humanity. Homelessness points to communities isolated and torn apart, unable to hold together the fragile bonds that knit us to each other, unable to cope with the distress caused by poverty, mental ill health, trauma and breakdown’.
Two attacks on two rough sleepers within four days tears our community apart. The victims were someone’s sons, brothers, fathers. What if this had been our son, brother or father who had been attacked. This hatred expressed through violence towards the vulnerable shakes us to the core. The anger, grief and pain that we experience should not be pushed to the side. I am angry. Angry at the state of society. Angry at the institutions and powers-that-be, that contribute towards the most vulnerable being expelled from their homes. Grieved for those who have ended up on the street due to mental-health problems or due to the abuse they have suffered. I am angry that society, who should protect the most vulnerable is not doing enough. I also feel shame and anger towards myself – that I am not doing enough.
But where does that leave me? Is it enough to be angry. To only get angry at society results in frustration and dis-empowerment. To only be angry at the perpetrators of these crimes will only make me bitter. I find strength through the wisdom of the Judea-Christian tradition. When I look at the life of another homeless man, Jesus, he was also angry. He was angry towards those who oppressed the poor. He was livid towards those who exploited the weak. He stood up for the marginalised; for those who could not defend themselves. To follow Jesus’ example means to stand against injustice. To fight the powers-that-be towards greater equality for the poor. To live alongside the most vulnerable, confused and ill. To welcome rough sleepers into our lives, giving them shelter, protection and a place at our tables, in our homes.
This will be costly. Following Jesus is always costly. Manning writes, ‘Jesus points to something better than a tired model of the rich helping the poor. He points to a radical equality and sharing of life. He points the way to a mode of living where communion overcomes suspicion and strangers are blessings rather than threats’.
I thank God that there are so many charities and people in Southend helping the homeless, often at their own expense. There are some remarkable people out there. But there are also many people and organisation who could help, but don’t. Frankly, this is not good enough. We are responding to the symptoms of a sick society not the causes. There is a need for the government to take responsibility and admit their policies are making the vulnerable homeless. We must act and put pressure on our local council to take action, even if it is costly. Cheap love and cheap compassion never solved anything. The many buildings vacant in the town could be used to give safe alternatives to life on the street. This could save lives. This should save lives.
A town is in only as great as she provides for her poor and protects her vulnerable. We can do so much better than we are doing Southend! We must love greatly and act accordingly.