Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Stewing on "street people".

Living Rough – Closing doors... a story by my wife.

You ask the question “Who is this person, living rough? Who do you think you are, pleading for our sympathy and dollars?” (We at the Night Shelter are asking the people of Dunedin for money to purchase our buildings.) 

Well who am I? Sometimes I’m not sure who I am. To survive my story has changed over the years. Even when and where I was born gets a bit hazy with the meds my body has been hit with. Childhood! Well some of that I would rather forget. Not that it was entirely their fault. I guess I was a bit of a bastard. I thought I was just like everyone else but from the jeers, teasing and beating maybe I wasn’t. It was my fault I guess. The teachers tried, but I could not keep up.  It was a fast downhill trip, gathering speed and bumps. I suppose I wasn’t the only one who breathed a sigh of relief when the classroom door closed behind me for the last time.
A job?- Yes I had a job, but not much of one though. I didn’t have to read so I could get by until -  “ Sorry we don’t need you now. The job has changed.” and the door closed behind me again.  I couldn’t find another, What the hell can I do anyway?  The booze made me feel better.  I guess I looked like a ‘sitting duck’ to the drug dealer but it was something to numb the pain. 
My life was mindless drifting ,‘til, great - an open door!  There were others like me to share my story with, things to do, a meal, some hope.  I had found a daytime drop-in centre. I felt better, more normal, ‘til “Sorry, there’s no more funding.” and the door closed behind me once more.
Shit happens in heaps I reckon. Not long after that, Mum died. Life hadn’t been much for her either. She’d loved me somehow; she was my ‘life line’ and at least I had a home to go back to. Eventually they came and said “Sorry the house is on the market and the door closed behind me again.
Wandering the streets and a mate said “There’s room on my couch” - well thanks. Here was a roof over my head, and more, drugs and ‘all sorts’ coming and going.  “Where’s the money you owe?” this guy said one day.  He had caught up on me.  That led to a trip to E.D.  At 4 a.m. they kicked me out and I went ‘home’ to be told “You’re not welcome here.”   You guessed it the door slammed shut and out into the wet cold streets I went.
Sheltering in a doorway, maybe it was the cold, or the hunger or tiredness, but it seemed there was a line of people, looking like a jury, ready to judge me and my future. One looked set to beat me up again. Was he the guy from standard one? The ‘suit’ said, “Well drugs! What do you expect!”  Was that the dealer or the lawyer? Another, I couldn’t see her face. Guess she didn’t want to see me now. Some pretend me and my sort don’t exist. Another muttered, “What’s the government doing about it anyway? What are social agencies for? Why haven’t they done something? Get them off the streets.”  Life for me is a black hole. What’s the use? Life is crap. There is no future for the likes of me.  I know I am shit, but nobody really knows how I feel. I have learned to hide it, or block it out by acting tough.
As the faces faded with daylight I thought, “if only I could get warm? Breakfast would be nice, somewhere safe, someone to guide me out of this mess.”
I know I’m not the only one. The others I used to talk to, they struggle too.  Mental illness, anxiety, depression, addictions, things that others just don’t understand and can’t cope with. We’ve all had family and friends who have now gone or given up.
The benefit! Well I’ve always struggled to make it last till the next one. Every week I say to myself “This week I’ll do better” and then I stuff it up again.
“Hey, you don’t have to spend the night there.” this stranger says. He takes a scrap of paper from his pocket and writes the address. “Be there at 7pm.”  The Night Shelter! The light above the door looked hopeful. The door opens to “Hi mate, come in”.  Warmth, the smell of food and a friendly face, was it too good to be true? Would I be judged good enough, is it safe, would the money run out here and the door shut again?

Notes and reflections on the story…
This is not the story of any particular person, it is “made up”. But sadly it is a true story.  The story originally was written by my wife Jean when we were mulling over people’s reactions to those who need the night shelter.  I have edited it a little. Jean has written it out of her experiences of running a Friday Night Drop-in centre at our last Church for eighteen years.  We have also had forty years of encountering “street people” and reaching out to them in various ways. Jean did the bulk of the food preparation for our drop-in centre and was like a surrogate mother for the people who came.  She would take around plates of food at different times during the night and engage most in some sort of conversation. So the story is typical of the things that have happened to people often referred to as “street people”. As I read it to edit it, various people came to mind that I knew had experienced these realities.  I knew the people that Jean had in mind and the story is not over dramatic or false. It is a very abbreviated and simplistic story. Most stories of decline happen because of a complex web of interactions, failings and rejections. The theme is that experiences of “closing doors”, real and metaphorical, finally leads to people being imprisoned by their own sense of inadequacy and a real loss of hope.
Disjointed … The story is a bit disjointed and had my grammar checker screaming on my computer. I edited out a bit of its disjointedness but then it lost some of its authenticity. When you converse with many of these people their conversation is disjointed.  They speak often in blurted out short sentences or phrases and you have to make the connections. Often too their voice dies away, it is like they are scared of the sound of their own voice.  Sometimes I am sure they are uncertain of my reaction so they just “dip their toes” in to see if I am accepting or interested in their story.  I wonder how many negative reactions have caused them to lose confidence?
Loss of confidence and hope … I hear people saying that these people do not help themselves, and I often agree.  But as I have mixed with them over the years, in spite of bravado, aggression and “know-all” behaviour, I have come to see that it is a real loss of confidence and a deep sense of hopelessness that keeps them down at the bottom of the heap. I recall taking one with me to Habitat for Humanity. I would coax him into doing stuff, simple stuff like drilling a hole.  After all sorts of bravado and excuses to avoid doing it, he would say, “I can’t do that. I’m crap.”  I discovered again and again, he was simply scared to try.  He did have the skills, but any self-esteem had long been knocked out of him.  That is a consistent theme among these people, hidden often by a tough demeanor.  The aggression we sometimes experienced in our drop-in centre was often like that of a wounded, cornered animal struggling to cope, fluffing up their fur to scare others off.  And they often have no hope. When I lay in bed at night I often think of something good, something positive I can look back on or look forward to. Something I can complete. Maybe a run or walk I want to do. Maybe a task I am looking forward to, or one I have done well. But in the darkness these people have nothing positive to reflect on nor to look forward to. When you have nothing to do and little confidence to do anything, life is a struggle just to get through each day.  There do not seem to be any positives to hold in mind. It is then that smoking, drinking, marijuana or legal highs look attractive. What else is there?
Those that change… I have seen some change.  Change, when it happens, happens in small steps.
Friendship… I once sat on a fence outside the Church beside a glue sniffer. As I sat with him the people going past would stare at us. They did not have to say anything, just their looks said, “You are scum!”  These people live with that every day. We had one very intelligent drop-in centre guest who had mental health and socialization problems. He came into the drop-in once and declared, “There are two “normals” looking for you down stairs.”  (Indeed two of my friends had come looking for me.)  That is what these folk live with. They feel abnormal. To change or even just to cope, they need to be loved and accepted by “normals”. Just in small every day conversation it can make a difference. Even if they cannot change, you are doing a great service if you treat them as normal.  It helps them feel better about themselves. I had one man out of the blue in the street say to me, “Thank you. I just want to tell you - thank you.”  “Why?” I asked, “You always talk to me in the street. You say my name. There’s people in my Church who won’t do that, they look away, they pretend I am not here.” 
 Introduce small steps… There was a young man who stopped and talked when we slept rough in the centre of town. He talked of running the three peaks race, a very high achievement indeed. He has represented NZ in the “Homeless Football World cup.”  When he first came to our drop-in centre he was a heavy drinker, argumentative and in a mess. Two years after my first introduction to him he rang me up and confessed over the phone that a year or so before he had stolen the Church vacuum cleaner. Now he is a changed man. It has taken many people who have been his friend, and many small steps but he is on a positive journey. I played table tennis with him. I suggested the football and joined him in that. I talked about my running and said that maybe he could do it. But others have been there in his life introducing small steps. He has had the friendship and then courage to take those small steps and he is a very different man.  The friendship tells him he is worth something. The small steps give him something he can look forward to.

The Night Shelter? What part does the Night Shelter play in this? It is a small way of saying, “You matter!”  These folk often live on the edge and can easily run out of options and end up homeless.  They have this feeling that society spits them out the back end and they do not matter. In some way the night shelter says, “There are some who care.” I think that can make a big difference, even for those who never need it. They know that there are people who care enough to have it available. It is a worthwhile venture. 

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