I was both expectant and apprehensive as I arrived in the east end of Glasgow for 3 nights, to volunteer with Glasgow City Mission’s Winter Night Shelter. Open 7 nights a week, from 1st Dec to 31st March, the night shelter (on East Campbell Street) provides a supervised, safe, warm bed for the night at the coldest time of year for men and women who have no home, and no hope. This is a life and death business….
It’s late January and the outside temperature is -1 deg C, Glasgow is frozen over with snow and ice. Inside the hall it’s warm and dry and the room is set out with 40 mattresses, pillows and sleeping bags, ready for another busy night. The city mission team are equipped with first aid kit, latex gloves, metal detectors, torches, bodycams, radios and a whole heap of grace for the 11 hour shift ahead. Team leader Elyse gives me a friendly welcome and shows me the secure staff room where I get kitted out. This is her first night of four on her regular shift pattern. She sits the team down and goes through the nightly safety protocols, as well as delegating specific roles to each team member for the night ahead. Team leaders Morag and Lorna exude a warmth and calmness about them that’s reassuring. They are paid staff and know exactly what to do, and what to expect. The rest of the team is made up of volunteers from churches across Glasgow.
I get to shadow Chris on the ‘body search and bagging’ stage of guest arrival. This is important as many guests will have items on them that jeopardise their own (or others) safety for the night: we look for lighters, drugs, needles, pens, weapons and anything else that might not be safe to hold on them for the night. Everything is named, tagged, bagged and securely stored overnight by the team, to be returned to the guest the following morning when they leave. Some guests have just a few roll-ups as their only possessions in life, others have large bags with clothes, jackets and sleeping bags.
As the doors open at 10pm we are met with a surprising variety of nationalities and personalities all desperate to get inside, and the frozen crowd begin to filter in for a hot drink and toast, and to find a safe bed for the night. Some are friendly, some are fearful, some are aggressive and resentful, some are wasted and can barely talk or stand upright, even for the brief body-search. Others are shaking with the cold, and most are filthy.
By the time the initial crowd are inside, registered, searched, and accommodated, it’s well after 11pm. We have 29 men and 2 women so far tonight, but the night is young (often people will arrive well into the morning – 3am is the official entry curfew time). It’s ‘lights out’ at midnight, but Elyse tells me “it’s unusual not to have to call either police or ambulance fairly regularly”, calibrating my expectation for the rest of the night ahead.
Persisting in caring
In the darkness of the room, John* is in bed, doped up with street valium (highly dangerous, and responsible for a spate of recent deaths in Glasgow and Dundee) and bleeding from his hand and forehead. He is constantly coughing and, worried he is choking, the team roll him onto his side to aide his laboured breathing. This is met with a confused and abusive response to leave him alone. The team persisted in caring for him during the night, but eventually had to call an ambulance at 4am when he began to cough up blood. The paramedics were fantastic, even when he refused to get into the ambulance, they advised he had a chest infection that needed attention, but was safe enough to stay in the shelter until morning, when he could meet the nurse, and receive further help.
Peter* is another one that’s clearly intoxicated – a local guy (the accent and green dress code gives it away) with fresh cuts to his face, he seems volatile and easily angered. I imagine he’s seen more than a few scraps in his lifetime. He doesn’t like being searched, and when the body scanner buzzes over his arm I ask him to take his jacket off to check that nothing’s hidden. In protest he rolls up his sleeves to reveal nothing but a bare arm covered in scars, where metal plates were inserted in various places. He triumphantly pulls his sleeves back down with a “told ya so..” and tells me his arm was broken in various places by a sword attack, hence the metalwork in his bones. I nervously joke about being the bionic man, but don’t ask any further questions of Peter, and move him on for a hot drink, hoping he crashes out quickly.
Not everyone is inebriated, many are sober, notably several Polish guys who are disciplined and well mannered. They stick together, respect the boundaries and are always up on time in the morning. Some have manual labour during the day, but most are begging.
David* arrives for the first time tonight, he’s English, sober and savvy. Shaved head, fairly well dressed, mid 50s, I guessed he was ex-forces, and he confirmed indeed he was. He was grateful for the hot drink and toast, but visibly apprehensive about what lay ahead. He finds it hard to believe he’s in this situation that “all power in my life has been taken away from me, my future is in other people’s hands now”. David describes a living nightmare that he finds surreal, after relational breakdown and false accusations, he’s hoping to get to Edinburgh tomorrow for an appointment with the local council for accommodation, and a new start in life.
Many of the guests are young adults, Ian* (aged 26) has not long arrived in Scotland from London to escape a life of relational breakdown. He’s sober, thin, exceptionally polite and keeps thanking me as he settles into his sleeping bag for the night. He asks about my own family, and encourages me to keep being a good dad to my boys, that will make the world a better place in his view. I’m guessing Ian never had a dad who cared for him, he left home age 6 to live with an aunty, then ended up in foster homes. All I could find to say to him was that he has his whole life ahead of him, to keep making good choices.
Even as I said it I was acutely aware of the reality that these men and women actually don’t have many years ahead of them unless they escape the spiral of addiction, violence and relational breakdown that has trapped them from a young age. The average life expectancy in the homeless community in the UK is 47. Given that my own is 80, this imbalance weighed heavily on my mind each night as I got to know the guests, all uniquely damaged and broken in some way. In 2016-17 over half of all homeless applications in Scotland were made due to either relational breakdown, or being asked to leave existing accommodation, and this certainly fits with the glimpse into this complex world I’m seeing tonight.
I take Peter* and Robert* outside for a supervised cigarette break at 1am (I’m the one holding the lighter) and hear some of their stories. Robert is completely out of it after taking several valium earlier that day to numb his senses to the hopelessness that surrounds him. 31 years old, he can barely open his eyes or stand upright as he stoops to search the frozen pavement for discarded cigarette stubs that would give him “ a couple of draws”. I can’t help but smile as he affectionately repeats “God bless you mate” to the incognito pastor lighting his used stub for him. Peter is over 6ft tall, and only has one arm. When we offered to help him empty his pockets and make his bed he was fiercely resistant, his battered life has forced him into a defensive independence. I asked him what’s happened to him, he told me he’s been homeless since he was 13. He lost his arm on the railway line when stealing copper coils aged 16, one coil he was carrying hit an overhead power line and he was thrown 50ft (trainers still soldered to the ground). He’s lucky to be alive, but maybe he wouldn’t agree. He said he doesn’t mind sleeping rough, cos “it’s warm enough in the close”. It’s only when I got home and embraced my 13 year old son, that the full impact of Peter’s desperate life struck me. Homeless at 13? My middle class privileged life means I’m struggling to conceive it.
Stuart* is another new arrival tonight, when I asked to search him he immediately put his hands together behind his head as if he was being arrested. Full of fear, Stuart was uncertain of where he was and whether he could trust us. He didn’t know how old he was exactly, he guessed at 45, he was healthy looking (not a drug user), but smelled of alcohol, and openly admitted to drinking too much to cope with anxiety. Growing up in Zambia, then the Highlands, Stuart had £60 cash to his name, and a couple of bags of belongings. He was very nervous handing them over to us for the night, and took constant reassurance to establish trust. I wondered what was racing through his mind as he sat upright on his bed, hands clasped, well after lights out. He was up before 5am too, pacing the room anxiously. He said he can’t sleep, due to nightmares, and always feeling unsafe. He is new to Glasgow and scared he will be attacked because he has a noticeable amount of belongings – “I just want to blend in and not be noticed” is his fearful wish.
A pillar of compassion
At midnight, manager Lorna arrives to check on the team and guests, she is a pillar of compassion as she whirls around the shelter checking, communicating and affirming. Assessing late arrivals for entry, breaking up fights in the street outside, and challenging individuals on following up their responsibilities and appointments comes naturally to Lorna.
When we get a chance to chat over a cup of tea at 1am I ask her what the greatest benefit of the night shelter is: “you know the greatest benefit is not actually a bed for the night, but is the gateway to services and support. If you asked the guests to refer themselves to hospital or social services they never would, but the night shelter is a vital hub for next steps. Guests are constantly challenged on their ownership of next steps. Anyone with accommodation provided is not allowed entry here, as it means they will lose their place in the council-provided accommodation. Glasgow City Mission are pulling the different agencies together to work to break the homeless cycle in these people’s lives. The guests can all access legal, health, accommodation and social work services in this single place. We bring the keys to their freedom to them, instead of vaguely hoping they will go and sort themselves out.”
Speaking with Lorna reminds me of Henri Nouwen’s view that “we cannot suffer with the poor when we are unwilling to confront those persons and systems that cause poverty. We cannot set the captives free when we do not want to confront those who carry the keys. Compassion without confrontation fades quickly into fruitless sentimental commiseration”. Thankfully sentimental commiseration is certainly not on the agenda here. Lorna reflects with conviction on the need for agencies to be around the same table, working closer together: the lawyers who write the letters face to face with the accommodation agencies who receive their letters; the addiction-help groups in the same room as the government social workers and health professionals.
A new day dawns
Nathan* is up and ready to face the day at 5am sharp (true to his word, he had predicted this when he went to bed the night before). Nathan is a London man, early 60s, well dressed, and full of stories that flow relentlessly from an anxious soul. My cigarette break with him in the freezing cold lasts a lot longer than planned, so much so that Elyse radios to check I’m ok (reassuring). At one point I put my hand gently on his shoulder to assure him he was going to be ok, and he immediately asked that I don’t touch him again. Before I could apologise he quickly recalled how his dad would attack him in his bed during the night as a child. This must have been 50 years ago, but has left permanent damage emotionally and psychologically. Relational breakdowns litter Nathan’s life, notably with a son he doesn’t know, who was born after a one night stand. He had no contact with his son for the first 16 years and lives with constant fear and disappointment. Stories of London gang leaders, advice on women and general street wisdom abound, and eventually I encourage him back inside. He’s not for sleeping though…
Morning is announced at 7am when the lights go on, and we wake up the guests, many of whom are still comatosed in their sleeping bags. This takes rounds of shouts, nudges and challenges to those still under the influence of yesterday’s high. Tea, coffee and toast is served again and the guests begin to gather their wits to face the reality of another day with no purpose or peace.
As I do the morning toilet sweep, I hear Robert* say to another guest “where am I gonna beg today man”? His single most important life decision when he wakes up each morning is which street to beg on. Robert gets angry with us when he asks for his jacket and belongings so he can get going, and is reminded that the ‘checking out’ process will happen shortly. He starts shouting and accusing the team of causing him to lose 30 minutes begging time. Time eqauls money in his world. And money eqauals survival, albeit I suspect survival for Robert is often the next hit rather than the next meal.
Stuart* doesn’t know what he will do today. He seems genuinely lost, and scared of the unknown. He doesn’t know his own age; no wonder he’s fearful of the day ahead.
Ali* asks for a shower and a train fare to London, neither are in my power to grant him in the moment, but we’ve got him an appointment with the visiting nurse this morning, since he told us he was coughing up blood yesterday.
John* left in a mess in the morning, and didn’t return the following night, so it’s hard to know where he ended up.
The team strip all the beds and wash down the mattresses, clearing the room in half an hour. By 8am the daytime staff of the Lodging Mission House have all arrived, and breakfast is served. At the same time the various agencies begin to arrive to discuss the guests’ immediate needs – a nurse holds court with several individuals who need medical help but won’t present themselves at a GP or hospital. The health effects of life on the streets, as well as drug abuse, skin disease, HIV and other conditions, are significant. Govan Law Centre arrive to ensure that each homeless person has the legal help required to secure accommodation (every person in Scotland is legally entitled to accommodation). Many of the guests do want help, they want hope, they want to get out of the mess they’re in. The good news is that an increasing number of accommodation centres have onsite addiction and mental health support groups, which are vital to ensuring a sustainable rescue path for these unstable lives.
As Elyse calls the team together at 8.30am to debrief and thank them personally, her alertness and enthusiasm seems to be at the same level it was 11 hours ago, quite remarkable. We strip off all our high-vis gear, radios and bodycams, and celebrate the fantastic news that, after 42 nights at the shelter, Derek* has found long term accommodation. One life at a time, hope is being restored. We pray with thankful hearts, and head home in the early morning rain…
Throughout the Old and New Testament, the entire bible makes it crystal clear that, although God loves everyone the same, He is categorically on the side of the poor when it comes to justice. In our own nation, which enjoys excessive wealth and wellbeing, I have been challenged to break from my middle-class comfort zone to live out this call to see justice delivered for the widow, orphan, homeless and hopeless. I will be a voice for those that have no voice. I will care in deed, not just in word.
Jesus said that the poor are blessed because they have a VIP pass to the Kingdom, ahead of everyone else. His friend and follower James echoed those words years later when he said the poor have been chosen to receive faith, and that genuine faith always reflects this compassion in actions, not just in words.
We can be certain therefore, that the biblical antidote to poverty is not wealth, but justice. Justice speaks on behalf of the voiceless. Justice restores property, land, health and wellbeing to the rightful owners. Justice is generous to those who have suffered oppression. Justice restores relationship and ultimately leads to God’s shalom (peace and wellbeing in community). Jesus’ first public declaration about Himself was that He had come to fulfill the ancient prophetic promise that the captives would be freed, that the oppressed would be restored to their rightful place, and that the poor would receive good news.
Justice, of course, has financial implications (redistribution of wealth in benefit systems, for example), but financial parity is not the goal. Glasgow City Mission are demonstrating that, when our faith is enacted towards those with nothing, then good news really is ‘preached’ to the poor. When we speak and act on behalf of the oppressed, heaven visits earth. Conversely, when the church is full of religious talk and in-house activity, but ignores the poor, then we bear no resemblance to Jesus, who came not to make us religious but to call us into right (‘just’) relationship with God, and our neighbour.
We must not confust compassion with sympathy
In my time at the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter I am reminded again that we must not confuse compassion with sympathy. Jesus never had sympathy on anyone, sympathy affirms someone in their problems, but doesn’t require any change in circumstance. Sympathy is the comfortable counterfeit of compassion, as cheap emotionalism it costs us nothing. “Sympathy is the human response to trouble, it has little to no hope and lives without power. Sympathy becomes dangerous since it reinforces a person’s identity in his affliction or need. It fuels people’s identity as victims and makes the possibility of heaven in the future their only hope.” – Bill Johnson, Experience the Impossible.
My time at the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter tempted me to console (give sympathy to) many broken individuals there, knowing there is no simple answer for a person’s problems. This is not ok. This is not what Jesus preached or how He lived. Sympathy leaves a person with his affliction, problem or question, while compassion brings them out. Sympathy involves feeling sorry, but not acting with true love and grace to see the deliverance purchased at the cross bring healing in this present life. Sympathy is the ‘sentimental commiseration’ that Nouwen warned us about (see earlier).
Compassion has Kingdom solutions in sight. Compassion is truly transformative. Jesus had compassion on every single person he met (especially the poor). He always rejected the person’s sinful nature (and surrounding culture) while loving the person completely. Compassion, then, draws us close to people in Christ-like empathy, while releasing the power of God’s love (not our own sentiments) into the situation. Compassion commands Lazarus to come out of the grave, and requires others to remove his grave-clothes. Compassion is willing to touch the untouchable person, in order to release healing and restore them to community. Compassion welcomes the brokenness of the woman at the well, but prophesies truth into her spirit that transforms not only her behaviour but her entire community. Compassion never leaves someone stuck in their circumstance, but offers a radical breaking of cycles of immorality, violence, sickness and oppression.
Jesus identified with homelessness
Nixon’s study into homelessness in England rightly identifies homeless, disenfranchised outsiders with the crucified Jesus, a person rejected by all. (David Nixon, Stories from the Street : A Theology of Homelessness). This identification means that the stories of the homeless people I have met are more than vehicles through which to appropriate my calling in a fresh way. Nixon rightly asserts that the established church needs the shock therapy of this identification to regain its own condition of being a story-maker again so that its worship, evangelism and place in community can become catalytic for meaningful social change. I have come to see that a man who started drinking at the age of 4, or was sexually abused by his parents as a child, or kicked out of home aged 6 can indeed find resurrection life, that involves a stripping off of the social, physical and psychological ‘grave clothes’ from his once-dead life, and see him walk into freedom.
In the midst of addiction, fear and chaos, the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter provides vital access to warmth, safety, rest, and most of all, hope for a brighter future. Jesus summarised the entire biblical law as one thought – “love your neighbour as yourself". To gift another human being the dignity, care and attention that you place on yourself reveals the reality of heaven here and now, the Father’s heart for all humanity. Biblical compassion is the love of God. Love seeks the best. Faith operates through love. These eternal truths mean that Glasgow City Mission are seeing the compassion of Christ bring transformation to the poor in spirit, for theirs is indeed the kingdom of heaven.
* Names have been changed
Rev Simon Dennis, Sheddocksley Baptist Church