The Edinburgh Evening News carried a provocative headline this week – a quote from a man called Gordon, who says he will “die on the streets”. He appears to suggest sleeping rough is a choice he has made but when you read below the headline and discover that his struggle with drug addiction has left him so bereft of hope that he says that “all ambition has left his body”. What appears to be a choice is not what it seems. It’s a decision driven by pain, by a struggle to cope with a tough reality and a soul so worn down other choices seem utterly unattainable. It’s like a marathon runner who wants to finish but whose legs will no longer function because dehydration has kicked in –suddenly sitting down and not running seems then to be the only rational option, the only choice, even though when the race began, finishing was the aim and running was the choice.
I don’t believe when Gordon or any other rough sleepers were 5 years old and people asked them what they wanted to be they said “someone who sleeps rough”. What is described as a choice is in reality a simply reflection of what’s left of Gordons soul after a journey to a very tough place. For him to move to a new choice will take more than the provision of material things or bricks and mortar. He needs to rediscover the will to make a new choice in his soul. That takes healing, and it takes time.
Many years ago when I was a youth worker in Ruchill in Glasgow, I spent time supporting a young man who’d had a very tough life. Rejected by addicted parents who’d physically abused him, unable to make any use of the education system and limited in his ability to engage socially, he was in a tough place. I managed to get him a house. His first tenancy. Within six weeks he’d broken his own gas meter (it was long enough ago to be when gas meters took cash) and he lost the tenancy. I remember asking his social worker why he would do such a thing. The social worker replied quietly – “it’s taken 21 years for him to get into this situation, it might take him 21 years to get out of it again.” I realised it wasn’t a house he needed even though he was homeless; it was time and support, healing and hope, and people who wouldn’t give up on him – people he could learn to trust and so then trust himself.
All our choices are based in what we know, what we have experienced and what we have learnt from those experiences. If the world has told you that you are worthless, especially when you are young, eventually you will come to believe it to be true and the choices you make, rational as they might appear to you, will reflect that understanding of yourself in the world.
In Cyrenians we believe the journey from exclusion to inclusion is an inner journey. Yes, material things matter, but they only become meaningful and helpful when what we believe about ourselves, our meaning and purpose, is strong and is healthy for ourselves and for others. That can take a long time to discover, and to believe, when the journey to exclusion has been one of pain and rejection and our soul has been so worn down, like Gordon, that it feels like it no longer exists.
3rd May 2018