Tag Archives: homelessness

On Brighton Streets – a review

This is both a book review, and a guest blog from Tom Brown

When is the last time you finished a book and felt like a better human being  for having read it? I read pretty voraciously and it’s a a pretty rare occurrence for me. I put off reading this for a while because I’m all too aware of the growing number of rough sleepers and the people that are on the verge of losing any sort of security. Where we live, there are more rough sleepers than we have ever seen before. I’ve volunteered for a local charity and have had the chance to hear their stories and have had to endure the knowledge that some of those that I served coffee and tea to a year ago, have since died. Also, I’ve been homeless and had nearly a decade of insecure housing and unreliable access to sufficient food. (Very glad to say that was some time ago, but what I learned during that time will be with me for the rest of my life)  So, as I say, I was a bit wary of jumping in. I know Nils Visser’s work though and I would read anything he writes (and in fact, plan to read everything he has written)

Right. Enough about me. On to the review. The book under discussion here, is On Brighton Streets by Nils Visser and Cair Emma. It takes you into an understanding of homelessness though the experiences of a set of characters who are entirely relatable, and tells the story that is like the journey that many people make when they begin to understand how this can happen to people, and the way they are treated when it becomes their life. It leads us in through a fairly straightforward understanding of the plight of the homeless and gradually introduces the complexities of their situations, and the realities of the wider culture. It’s readable to the point of being very hard to put down and though it sugarcoats nothing, it leaves you with a sense of hope and a feeling that humanity is perhaps a very good thing to be a part of, and well worth getting in and giving it all another go. It would also be a good book to give to anyone you know who needs a new introduction to the subject. It’s also good for younger readers. The main character is a school age girl, in fact. If all this were not enough, there’s this “All proceeds from this book have been pledged to Cascade Creative Recovery, First Base & Sussex Homeless Support.” Cair and Nils have been at the coalface and have been heroic in their ceaseless (I won’t say tireless, because they are often tired!) work with and for the homeless and vulnerable in the Brighton area.
Here is the link. Go get you one (or several) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Brighton-Streets-Nisse-Visser/dp/9082783649

Gather Around The Flame

Guest blog by Bia Helvetti

Bring your blanket, bring your brew, I will spin a yarn for you, the moon rides high, the stars are bright, gather around the flame tonight…

The harvest is nearly over, “the veil grows thin and the dark draws in” as they say and we simple folks we huddle inside, draw the curtains, and fill our halls with light and warmth and laughter and try to forget, right? We try to forget that the dark and the cold, that space beyond our fire’s gleam, exist.

We turn up the central heating, snuggle deep down under duvets with microwaved popcorn and our favourite film, we loiter in the kitchen by the kettle’s perpetual froth of steam and we cook soups and stews and hot apple pie. We cling to the hope and comfort of the flame just as our ancestors have always done and no matter that our flames are hidden now inside electric ovens or combi-boilers or the flickering simulation of the plasma screen.

In times gone by the winter was a dark and lonely time for most. Rural life was the status quo and when snow and rain and biting cold made the country lanes impassable families and friends would be cut off from each other for weeks; the flickering window lights across the valleys providing the only reminder of life outside the circle of your own hearth.

Travellers forced out into the cold would rely upon those lights to guide them safely across miles of uninhabited heath, forest or farmland to places where they might, possibly, if folks were kind, find shelter or warmth or the opportunity to barter food.

Sometimes the young or irresponsible would think it sport to carve out turnip lanterns and hide them in the hedgerows as dusk began to fall. These false lights must at first have seemed a bright hope for a road-weary traveller. Imagine their horror and dismay as they drew near, only to find a lurid demon, grinning mockingly down on them from the black branches of a briar patch.

Sometimes modern life can seem like this can’t it? An uncertain trek through a cold, dark and often lonely wilderness. We are drawn instinctively to the bright and hopeful flames of love, family, career, success… but sometimes these flames that we have invested so much of our energy and will pursuing turn out to be false – the love who leaves us, the family who turn away or are stolen from us by circumstance, the company for whom we put in all those extra hours of commitment and toil that suddenly deems us expendable, or crashes to the ground taking us down with it – and we are left alone in the dark, uncertain where to turn or which new and distant flickering flame we may trust.

SHELTER is a charity which helps people who find themselves in just such a situation; people from all cultures, backgrounds and demographics who suddenly find that their basic needs for warmth, shelter and security are being threatened.

Every year SHELTER helps millions of people who are facing homelessness or housing difficulties by providing free, expert advice through helplines and face-to-face services which are freely available to everyone. Their team of solicitors offer expert legal advice, help fight possession and eviction, and can attend court to defend people who are at risk of losing their home. They can challenge local authority homelessness decisions, and step in when councils aren’t doing enough to support those in housing need. They also defend tenants by helping to pursue claims against landlords where disrepair is causing a serious risk of harm or in cases of unlawful eviction.

Where families are concerned, SHELTER has a specialist support network to offer services to  families who need more in-depth help to keep their home, or to settle into a new one after being homeless. These teams work with families over time, giving them the full, practical support they need to get back on their feet. As well as working face to face with those affected by housing problems, SHELTER also campaigns for changes in the law which will tackle the root causes of the housing crisis.

Homelessness can happen to anyone. In 2013 more than 81,000 households in England were found to be homeless, but an estimated 67% of homeless people are thought to have ‘slipped through the net’ of statistical collation. These figures highlight the importance and relevance of the work that SHELTER does, not only helping to re-house people but working to prevent homelessness in the first place.

Gather Around The Flame is a collection of short stories – folk tales, fairy tales, stories of myth and magic, wisdom and wonder – which has been put together in order to raise funds for SHELTER. Most of the contributors have experienced homelessness and housing problems first hand and so it is an issue about which we feel passionately and hope to do all we can to support. The book is divided into seasonal sections and is designed to be an ideal anthology of amusing and inspiring tales for friends and family to share around the campfire or hearth – or just with a nice cup of cocoa at bedtime!

Water can keep us alive but fire sustains the soul – by purchasing a copy of Gather Around The Flame you will be helping SHELTER to continue its vital work in making sure that all those who feel lost and alone have a place of bright hope and comfort to turn to for support.

Wishing you blessings as you gather around your own flame this season,

Bia Helvetti

Gather Around The Flame is available in paperback from Amazon, priced £5.99



What is charity?

Legally speaking, a charity should be all about providing public benefit. Usually this means raising funds to do things that need doing, but cannot be paid for in more commercial ways – medical research, environmental protection, famine relief… we know perfectly well what charity is supposed to look like. I gather there’s a growing scandal in the USA around how little public money donated to charities finds its way to where it is needed. If you’re aware of this and want to add details in the comments, do pile in. I think it is important to publicise this kind of thing and to know how our money is used.

How much money should a charity pay people to work for it? Many charities have employees and could not possibly run with just volunteers. I think, for example, of the nearby Wildfowl and Wetland Trust, which needs experts and a lot of person hours to function. I take no issue with them paying people who do vital work. I don’t think most of us would object to paying people to get the job done. However, if most of the money seems to be paying for something other than getting the job done, I think it’s fair to ask questions.

I think we are entitled to expect charities to uphold the law in all ways. That seems like a fair ask. No charity should exist to benefit the powerful and affluent at the expense of the poor and vulnerable. I also think that charities should be entirely transparent about how they spend the money they are asking people to give them.

So here’s a thing. Over at canalrivertrust.org.uk it says this “Every penny you donate will be spent directly on work to conserve, restore and enhance your canals and rivers – and to educate people about them”. (It’s on the donate page, if you want to check.)

What it doesn’t say, is that this ‘charity’ has an enforcement department. That’s a whole team of people who are paid, not voluntary, and whose job it is to monitor the movement of boats. The enforcement department is paid to write letters (employee time plus postage costs here) that pressure boaters who live on their boats into taking moorings (CRT owns many moorings, there is a financial benefit to them in doing this). The enforcement department routinely threatens people who have no mooring, with homelessness. You can legally have a boat and not have a mooring. This department is a legacy from their time as a government outfit, but I question what a charity is doing even having an enforcement department in the first place.

The website does not say “some of the money you will donate will be used to pay for threatening letters to be sent to boaters, and if we take people to court, we’ll use your money to pay for that, too.” They do take people to court, incidentally.

Do we feel comfortable with the idea of donating to a charity that could use that money to take a person’s home from them? In what way does making a person homeless constitute public benefit? They say it is to protect the canal, but boats that sink are left on the bottom, apparently less dangerous than one that has not PAID THEM to have a mooring. Isn’t that interesting?

If you want to take this up with them directly, @canalrivertrust on twitter, or consider swinging round to this site – http://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/charity-should-be-charitable
In the meantime, if you are aware of any other uncharitable charities that need bringing to public awareness, do mention them in the comments. Name and shame.

Floating Madness

Last week there was a blog on Autumn Barlow’s site about the things British Waterways do around boat licensing. I live on a boat, and I’ve spent the last week wondering how much to say openly. So here goes…  I do not like what I see when it comes to BW and their attitude to people who live on boats and I do not think they interpret the law fairly. I also believe that there is a conflict of interests issue here, and that people who benefit financially from a system should not be allowed to police said system as well.

My situation is this. I am paying for a permanent mooring for my boat because British Waterways have told me that I must do so to comply with the laws. I have always moved my boat in accordance with the law, but the rules are vague, and their interpretation is not the same as mine. However, if I used the mooring I’ve been obliged to pay for, I would be breaking the law.

Let me explain. There are no available moorings on this canal that have planning permission to be used residentially. All we have are leisure moorings where people can leave hobby boats when not in use. You can live on residential moorings, legally, all the time, you pay council tax and everything. But we don’t have any of those. So in essence I have been told that I am legally required to pay for something that I cannot use, and do not want.

The only way to go up against this, would be to refuse to take a permanent mooring and wait for British Waterways to take me to court, and then slog it out. Or in other words, my only other option is to gamble with my home, because if I lost, I would lose my home. As I have a child, there is no way I am going to risk his physical or emotional security, so I’m paying up.

I do wonder what’s going to happen when British Waterways becomes The Canal and River Trust. British Waterways has made people homeless in the past and, to my knowledge, has threatened a lot more people with homelessness, threatened to take boats out of the water, and encouraged people who live on boats to seek council housing instead. These are people who own their boats and who live far more independently than they would in a council house scenario, at a time when the system is over burdened anyway. Making that entirely crazy.

In these hard financial times, are people going to put their hands into their pockets to support a charity that spends time and money taking people to court, and making them homeless? To my mind, that is absolutely in conflict with the nature of charity. I’d bet I won’t be alone in thinking that.

With my Druid hat on, the whole scenario raises a lot of issues for me. The Canal and River Trust will be responsible for canals and rivers. That’s a great deal of our water supply and watery infrastructure. It’s a huge environmental consideration as well as covering a lot of heritage and history. For me, there’s a spiritual aspect to the rivers as well. These are things I want to see protected, and things I care about passionately. Personal issues aside, there’s a huge moral dilemma for me here. I want to support the environmental and heritage angle of the Canals and Rivers Trust. But at the same time, I also care about human rights issues. I’m conscious that by speaking up about the treatment of boaters, if I succeed in drawing attention, I will be undermining a charity that should be doing work I believe in. But I want to support a charity that spends money on restoration and conservation, not one that pays people to monitor the movement of boats, and spends money on harassing people, no matter what the legal justification is. To the best of my knowledge, the enforcement department at British Waterways is talking like it expects to be part of the charitable trust.

Laws should be fair and reasonable, complying with one should not push you into breaking another. No one should have to pay for something that they cannot use, that’s just nuts. The breaking of laws and the enforcement of laws is, in my opinion, the business of the police, and not the proper work of a charity. Those who benefit financially if allowed to interpret the laws unchecked, should never be given the power to police the system. There should be no victimless crimes, and how far a boat moves really makes no difference to anyone so long as it moves often and far enough not to violate planning laws. Under no circumstances should a charity be working to make a person homeless. The whole system needs cleaning up.