My nerves were getting the better of me, what had I let myself in for this time? Why do I do it when I already have so much going on? Turning into Leeds, I could see the city before me, it looked peaceful and calm, if a little dark, but the lights were twinkling in the distance making it look pretty and inviting.
That’s the last thing I was expecting from the latest experience I’d signed up to – inviting was certainly not what was on the agenda this evening! You see, as many of you know, when I’m offered the chance to experience something new, I always think it’s important that you take it.
As an active member of the Yorkshire Mafia, I find that there are many opportunities to meet new people and to offer advice and support. In particular, you may have heard of something called Skill Will; it is the organisation which matches private and public sector businesses with third sector charities.
The concept behind Skill Will is simple; if you’re a painter and decorator then offer that skill to a charity, if you’re a lawyer however then it would be more worthwhile to provide legal services and advice to these companies, who are not often in the position to pay for them.
So, back to my story, I had been given the opportunity as a member of the Yorkshire Mafia to try out something new – but not all experiences can be categorised as positive and I was starting to fear the worst on my journey into Leeds City Centre. I had put my name down for a soup kitchen with Simon on the Streets, the charity that provides outreach services for the most vulnerable – and often homeless people – in West Yorkshire.
In all honesty I have been wanting to get involved in something similar for a while and tried at Christmas but learnt that you can’t just show up – you have to be a registered volunteer and you need to go through a process – so this was my chance to see what it was all about.
I scurried up the road, feeling a little anxious and if I’m honest unsafe. I don’t walk around Leeds a lot on my own at night and for some reason the thought of infiltrating a world I know very little about really unnerved me.
I met with Helen, General Manager for the charity and Jenny the Treasurer, along with another first time volunteer Sam. We met for a quick coffee in McDonalds for a catch up before getting out and into the thick of it.
I was aware that I had lots of questions; how do people end up on the streets, how are they meant to learn what’s right from wrong, why can’t society play a better role in helping them, surely there are resources available, where does the money come from, what can people do to help, why does this happen…
Once I’d got one or two things off my chest we were on our way and the butterflies returned. We had a better idea of what to expect and rather than handing out soup in doorways to people who barely graced you with a grunt, as I was expecting, we rounded the corner to a collective of around 20 people enjoying soup and a roll.
They were laughing, shouting, biking around and telling jokes. Some were singing and others just keeping themselves to themselves but what struck me was that in the crudest sense of the word this was a community. It may be a dysfunctional one but a community none-the-less.
Just like the regulars down our local pub, my Dad would say they were there to ‘tell some jokes and swap some lies’ and that was exactly what it looked like. It wasn’t scary at all. We stood a little away from the group and I have to admit to feeling a little ashamed. I was there to see what goes on, yet felt like I was ‘observing’ these people – as if that was my right, which of course it isn’t.
I needn’t have worried, soon enough a young chap called Tommy* came over and introduced himself. He held out his hand and said I looked like a Russian doll – my coat is red and he mentioned his Mum had a figure that wore a similar outfit.
He then proceeded to make us laugh with his dry sense of humour for the proceeding 10 minutes with his anecdotes and warnings of ‘don’t step back – there’s something behind you and it’s not great. I’ve just moonwalked through it. Never one to miss an opportunity to perform!’.
He then explained, very matter-of-factly that he was going to be spending a couple of hours with a man he had recently met who was sleeping on the streets at the other side of Leeds; ‘he doesn’t know anyone you see’, he explained, ‘he doesn’t have a blanket, so I’m going to help him get one’.
I believe that Tommy is an exception to the rule when you’re trying to engage with people who have such complex needs. The basic principle is that it’s every man for himself but I was taken by this young man and his eagerness to engage and to help someone else.
Then came Stuart*. Well, what a character! He approached a little cautiously at first and then held his hand out and said ‘hello, miss’. He continued to call me ‘miss’ despite knowing my name, it was a very gentlemanly gesture. At one point he seemed to go off into his own world and relive some tragedy, which made him cry, before coming back to the conversation and telling me that I should listen to Led Zeppelin.
Looking around the group of people I didn’t feel nervous or scared, I just felt compassion and a very deep sympathy – but not the sadness I expected. I didn’t want to cry, I just wanted to let them know that for that brief moment, I think I understood. Many of these people have little choice but to end up in the situations they do – it’s no surprise when you listen to their stories but then again, the same can be said for anyone.
I wouldn’t wish this situation on my worst enemy – to end up reliant on drugs or drink to get you through the day and help you to forget about the awful things you have experienced, before tucking yourself up on the cold steps of a shop doorway at the end of a long day in preparation for another night on the streets.
What I was so thankful for was the wonderful work that the team at Simon on the Streets deliver. It was about more than soup and a bun, it was about companionship and the closest thing to friendship these people may ever experience. Most importantly it was about listening. As simple as that. Listening without judgement.
Like many others I go through my day worrying about many things that in the grand scheme are trivial by comparison to the worries that these people have.
When I fall asleep tonight, tucked up in my warm bed, cup of tea in hand and hot water bottle by my side I will think about Tommy and Stuart and hope that they are ok, because thanks to them, I had a great night out and an experience that I will pass on to others in the hope that we can all do more to support the people in the system who for one reason or another just don’t fit.
Good night all.
*The names of those I met have been changed in order to protect their identity.