We all know there is homelessness in large metropolitan areas, but the truth is homelessness is everywhere and effects each and everyone of us. When British Airways graciously offered to sponsor my trip to London I knew I would have to spend some time in a rural community outside of the city. I was honoured and grateful that Lisa Lewis, chief executive of Doorway, a drop-in center and primary services for rough sleepers in Chippenham, Wiltshire, UK invited me to spend the day.
The main deference between urban and rural homelessness is in smaller communities homelessness is much more hidden, and because of that, there is often less support to help our friends that are sleeping rough or sofa surfing. In large urban areas it is common to see people sleeping on the street; where in smaller communities homelessness is rarely visible. People double up and triple up in homes, sleep in cars, go from couch to couch, or live in tents far away from public view. It's still homelessness - both rural and urban homelessness have negative effects on our communities - without exception!
When I travel and visit a homeless services organisation for the first time I never know what I am walking into. Lisa runs Doorway the way every drop-in centre should be run. I was very impressed with how all the local support services engaged with rough sleepers during the session. But what blew me away is that when I walked into the main room I couldn't tell who were staff or who were clients. Normally, when I visit a day centre I see all the homeless people by themselves watching TV, playing card games, sleeping in a corner, or just hanging out. At Doorway, each and every table had our rough sleeping friends and staff/volunteers mixed together, it was gorgeous.
It was truly amazing spending time with Lisa and her staff. But my one day visit there messed me up. Right when the doors opened a young homeless man was in tears because the strings on his backpack had broke. Now, that may not be a big deal to you, but to this young man it was a serious crisis. Imagine all the stress points a person has to go through sleeping rough. I knew it really wasn't his backpack that was the issue - it was the never-ending hopelessness of life on the streets causing this man to break down. I could literally feel his pain and remembered what my life was like when I was homeless. A few hours later I met a man who was sleeping in his car. He wanted to be interviewed so I broke out the camera. Then during the interview he started talking about how he won't be around much longer. When I asked him to clarify he said he lost his will to live. That was a first for me. I have had lots of people talk about the darkness of homelessness in the past tense, but never anyone who was actively considering killing themselves. I knew I would never use the interview, yet I asked this man several times about what he said. He said that's how he felt and he didn't care. My heart broke for this man. The good news is the staff at Doorway are well-trained in crisis intervention and this man quickly became a priority. They also found a local vendor that fixed the first man's backpack.
Please watch this very powerful interview with Lisa Lewis. We talk about that the day I visited, system failures, rough sleeping, why people don't want to stay in hostels, and homelessness in the UK.
Photo credit: Mark Edwards