Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

November 17, 2012 — 7 Comments
Homelessness in 2013

Homelessness in 2013

I wrote this following a visit to America before Christmas in 2012 and have taken to tweeting the link at this time every year since. (The music is worth a listen too . . . ) I never tire of reading, watching, listening to A Christmas Carol, and so this is my effort to cannibalise it. Dickens’ message was always powerful, but seems more so as every year passes and the attacks on the UK’s welfare state appear so relentless.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that in the UK we are retreating into a US style ‘welfare’ system, in which the most vulnerable pay the price for the bad decisions of others.  Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than by the emergence of #foodbankbritain.

Unfortunately, this year I have lost contact with Megan and Eric. I am hoping they have only temporarily ‘gone off the radar’  and they’ll be back in touch in 2015.  Life is precarious for them and wherever they are my hope is that the family is safe and warm this Christmas.

The Story . . .

Whenever I go to the United States I often find myself troubled.  There are lots of things about the United States I absolutely love – most particularly the people, who I have always found to be open, sociable and thoughtful.  As a country I never fail to be impressed by lots of different aspects of American life, many of which derive from the country’s prosperity, and the labours of its people. So why do I always leave feeling sympathy, not envy, for the people whose company I have enjoyed?

Perhaps my recent experience explains why . . .

My story starts here, in Christmas Present . . . (with music provided by Christy Moore … )

Imagine a big American city in the run-up to Christmas, any big American City . . . New York, Chicago, Denver. It doesn’t matter which city because what I am about to describe can be seen in any one of them, and in all of them. This story happened somewhere, but it could have happened anywhere, because it happens everywhere.

Now listen to this as you read on . . .

I set out from my conference hotel and went to a local bar for a beer. I pulled up a chair at the bar, sat with my beer and watched the football on the TV screens.  Before long, and not unusually in the US, the person sat next to me engaged me in conversation. We discussed the merits of English football as opposed to American football. He compared English football to a game of Chess. I reflected that he had obviously never watched Stockport County play Shrewsbury Town on a cold Saturday in December.  It was bar banter – it happens all over the world.  Once we had exhausted discussion about football (he’d never heard of Edgeley Park – I told him it was so good they named it once), the conversation turned, at his behest, to my views about the recent Presidential election. I indicated that I had welcomed an Obama victory and I could not comprehend the consequences of a Romney win.  I think Romney would have plunged America back into a recession and dragged the rest of the world down with it (amongst other things).

Jeremy (because we were on first names terms by now) took a contrary view.  For him, Obama was the doomsday scenario.  Our conversation developed. Jeremy explained to me that in his view all taxation, other than that required to sustain the army, was State theft.  His salary (substantial, because he insisted on telling me how much it was) was his money – the State had no right to take it away from him and use it to fund the feckless.  He went on to tell me that everyone must take responsibility for themselves.  Those who receive his taxes, in the form of support for health care or social security had failed to take responsibility.  It was not his duty to pay for their bad choices. In Jeremy’s view there was no case to be made for taxation to be used to provide support for the less well off. Rather the poor and the sick needed to feel the full consequences of their (bad) choices. In time, we moved from politics to religion and Jeremy told me how important God was in his life.  His God was not a God I recognised because S/He was clearly completely bereft of any sense of compassion or forgiveness.

All of this is an observation.  I ought to point out that Jeremy presented as an extremely pleasant, reasonable person. I think we enjoyed each others’ company and we agreed to disagree without any rancour. I happily accepted the beer he generously bought for me.  When we parted company I reflected on the conversation and realised I had come face to face with the Tea Party. There are a lot of Jeremys in the United States.

Twenty-four hours later and I am walking back to my large, corporate hotel having been out for a meal and a drink.  The sky was clear and the temperature was cold. As I walk down 18th Street, and in the dark, I can see an obstacle on the pavement in front of me – at first it seems like garbage.  As I get nearer I realise it is a man – lying across the pavement , from one side to the other, and wrapped in a flimsy cotton sheet. As I approach, his form becomes clearer.  I ask myself – is he asleep, drunk or dead? The temperature is near freezing, and the sheet is clearly completely inadequate in providing any protection from the cold.

As I get nearer, I wonder what I should do . . . check he is OK, ask if he is alright, or walk by?  Without being aware of making a decision I found that as I approached the man I stepped over him, in order to get past him. There was no alternative – I had to step over him as he stretched across the whole pavement. As I did so, I wondered how many people had already stepped over him that night.

A few paces later I checked myself – had I really stepped over a man lying cold across a pavement? Had I really done that? How could I have done it?

I turned round, and went back to check the man was OK. As I did so he stirred and I knew then he wasn’t dead. Rather inadequately I took out my wallet and gave him some money – a fraction of what I had just spent feeding myself. As I bent down with the note in my hand his hand reached up and took what I offered. I knew he was looking at me, but I could not look at him. I could have shown more kindness in my eyes than with a $20 note, but it was easier to pay for my guilt with money than with real humanity.

I don’t hold myself up as any good Samaritan.  On the contrary, I am embarrassed by my inadequate response.  What I should have done was treat the man like a fellow human being and talk to him rather than throw some money at him, turn my back and walk away.

But the man lying in the street, and my response, is not the main issue. The main issue is that in America there are lots of men (and women) lying in the street. Not generally as conspicuous, or as pathetic, as the nameless man I stepped over that night (perhaps he was called Jeremy too?) – but there are lots of people in a similar plight.  They are there – very clearly visible. When I leave the hotel I see lots of them before I have walked 100 yards.

And here’s the rub . . . I simply don’t understand how a country that enjoys such prosperity, and where the (over-) consumption is so conspicuous can tolerate such suffering. I think of Jeremy, I see the Christmas lights in the big City shops, and I imagine him repeating the words of Scrooge from Dickens’ classic ‘A Christmas Carol‘  . . .

First Collector: At this festive time of year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute.
Ebenezer: Are there no prisons?
First Collector: Plenty of prisons.
Ebenezer: And the union workhouses – are they still in operation?
First Collector: They are. I wish I could say they were not.
Ebenezer: Oh, from what you said at first I was afraid that something had happened to stop them in their useful course. I’m very glad to hear it.
First Collector: I don’t think you quite understand us, sir. A few of us are endeavoring to buy the poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth.
Ebenezer: Why?
First Collector: Because it is at Christmastime that want is most keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. Now what can I put you down for?
Ebenezer: Huh! Nothing!
Second Collector: You wish to be anonymous?
Ebenezer: [firmly, but calmly] I wish to be left alone. Since you ask me what I wish sir, that is my answer. I help to support the establishments I have named; those who are badly off must go there.
First Collector: Many can’t go there.
Second Collector: And some would rather die.

I did wonder if the man on the pavement, who looked as though he was dead, would rather be dead – his certainly did not look like a life worth living.  But according to Jeremy this was the consequences of his bad choices, his irresponsibility – it was not Jeremy’s responsibility to share his large earnings with anyone who must have made bad choices.

And that is why I feel no envy for America. Indeed, when US Presidential candidates proudly proclaim, without any sense of humility, that America is the greatest country in the history of the world I have to disagree.  The most technically advanced? Possibly. The most prosperous? Probably. The greatest? Emphatically not. The strongest? Certainly not. To have any claim to be the strongest it would have to demonstrate that the country knew how to care for its weakest – America does not.  I don’t know of any country that gets it right – but there is no other country like the US that has the resources to get it right, and still gets it so spectacularly wrong.

Megan and Eric: homeless, jobless, pregnant and irresponsible?

A final thought . . .

One year previously, in a Christmas Past, whilst attending the same conference in another big American city, I met Megan and Eric.  At the time they were living in an Occupy camp.  They were homeless, Eric was jobless (his concrete laying job provided only occasional work in the winter) and Megan was pregnant. Irresponsible? Bad choices? I never thought so . . . I have stayed in touch with them since and a year later baby Liam has arrived, and their prospects are beginning to look up. A year ago they felt hopeless.  They needed some help to get them through a bad time – which is what social security, in its fullest sense, is all about. It is what civilised countries provide. Now Megan and Eric look like coming through that period and their future, though still uncertain, looks more optimistic.

I am not sure, in a Christmas Future, that the man I stepped over that night will be in a better place. Without support, I would be surprised if he has any future at all [in the UK, life expectancy of homeless people is 47, 30 years less than the rest of the population]. He needs social security – not charity. And not to protect him from his own bad choices and irresponsibility, but rather to protect him from the bad choices, and irresponsibility, of others.

If you have always had lucky breaks in life, and you have never made a bad choice – be grateful. You can be generous too by supporting Oxford Homeless Pathways. Donate here.

And finally . . .

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7 responses to Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

  1. 

    As someone who works at a homeless shelter, I found this a great read. You speak about the issues with integrity and without stereotypes that people fall into so easily. I don’t know if anyone will ever really get social responsibility right, but all we can do is ask them to keep trying, and do what we can on the smaller scale for the time being. Great piece.

    • 

      Thankyou. I worked in a homeless shelter myself for some time – although quite a while ago now. I have always been struck by the fine line that often exists between life being ok, and very definitely not ok. Support from others can mean the difference between having hope, and feeling completely hope-less. Keep up the good work you all do – it is invaluable.

  2. 

    I left a link to this blog on Christy Moore’s website at http://www.christymoore.com/. He replied by saying . . . ‘Thanks for sharing your experience,thoughts and reflections with us. I seldom get to hear these songs except when I sing them live. Hearing Easter Snow in that context changed the pictures for me. Its never too early to reflect on this aspect of Christmas.See you along the street.’

  3. 

    Howard, this is such a touching piece. It is funny how many Jeremys think that your struggles stem from bad choices and irresponsiblity however, it just happens to be a case of bad luck. Without the help of people who care in the world there isn’t a way for people to get back on their feet. I do think its the Jeremys out there that disreguard the fact that there are people who depend on the help from the state and the U S just to get a second chance at life, I am eternally grateful for the second chance my family got because it makes us never lose hope. We learned firsthand how to raise our baby Liam to be a person with sympathy and compassion for the less off. We would want to teach him the morals and values of someone like you Howard! Because a year ago when we crossed paths with you it was my God who put you in our lives. He is a loving God who NEVER gave up on the 3 of us. He kept us safe and with the help of the people who care (Howard) he kept us warm in the blistering cold. Now for us to be dry, safe, warm, and all together in a nice home. We took our second chance and made it into a dream come true. Thanks to the people who NEVER gave up on us! Thanks to people like Howard who NEVER stopped caring. And thanks to the people who are complete opposites of those Jeremys out there!

    • 

      It’s just always great to hear from you both, to hear that life is looking better and to hear that baby Liam is doing so well. One day I’ll get over and see you again 😉 But in the meantime, take care and stay safe, Love to all of you, Howard.

      Since Megan posted her comment she sent me this photo of her and Liam . . .

      • 

        This is an old picture< I promise to update you with more recent photos. That doesn't do that gorgeous angel justice! 🙂

  4. 

    In 2013, two years after I met Megan and Eric, I am still in touch with them all and they continue to make good progress despite hard times. Our brief meetings at the Occupy camp in Pittsburgh in 2011 seem like a long time ago. Is always good to hear from them and how they’re getting on.

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