In 1972 Revd David Clark got involved with St Martins and gave voluntary time in several ways on the committee. He became Chair of Trustees until 1985. David wrote a book The Dark Uncertainty – Wrestling with suffering and death’, published in 1993, which included many reflections of his time with St Martins.
An excerpt of the book is written below:
From the beginning of my clerical life I was made aware of homelessness. There was the great, literally ham-fisted Irish-man, who sat in our back kitchen in Lancashire drinking tea, and telling us how far he had walked. When I called him a ‘long-distance man’, he showed me one of his fists and told me no one would called him that and got away with it. It was an initiation into one of the many traps for the unwary which lie in wait for those who work with homeless people.
Later, in Manchester, I met the hardened cases, so I thought – those who seemed to have chosen a homeless way of life, with temporary accommodation at a Salvation Army hostel or in a railway arch dedicated to dossers. No one would choose this way of living: it was too risky for one thing, you could at any time be ‘done over’ for the bottle in your pocket, or even a packet of fags.
Some years later, I went snooping downtown in Norwich. I stopped at an interesting house: overgrown, broken cornices and damaged tiles, cracked flags and smashed windows: but the overall shape was pleasing and it was an old, turn of the eighteenth century perhaps. I went upstairs: there were signs of habitation, a hole in the centre of the floor ringed with charcoal and a mattress in the corner. It was sodden with urine. What had reduced people to living like that? I was to learn in the ensuing years that the reasons included childhood abuse, mental illness, accidents, violence, and a host of tragic circumstances and, above all, loss of self-esteem.
In the summer of 1971, the sunlight slanted passed the climbing roses into the study of the Norwich Cathedral Deanery and shone upon two and a half dozen representatives of the ‘caring agencies’ voluntary and statutory, called together by Alan Webster, the Dean at the time. A small group of people agreed to carry the project forward. There were plenty of redundancy churches for accommodation, but the problems were money and personnel, supervision (even minimal) and permission. A night shelter was opened volunteers were staffed in and I was a backup if they didn’t arrive.
Within a year, we were overrun by dangerously violent itinerant labourers. We closed the shelter, fitting new locks, built a small office, instituted a new security-conscious regime, and then began again.
One of the many dilemmas faced by the Night Shelter workers was created by a man with psychiatric problems. There is a high incidence of homeless people in this category.
It was not long before the vestry was overcrowded. To keep on the right side of the law, we were turning away far too many people as the shelter became an acceptable refuge to people who had not dared to trust it to begin with. The logical step was to move into the church itself, after removing the pitch pine pews, thus giving us first of all a maximum of fifteen bed spaces on wooden floors, and later, when the whole of the church was occupied, forty-five spaces. Toilet facilities were limited, so we were required to supply an elsan toilet, conveniently situated next to a seventeenth-century memorial to one Mr Chambers. Second-hand rubberized mattresses were obtained from a hospital at minimal cost, and after one rather cold winter, a sponsored fast by the young people of a suburban church provided us with the money for a splendid second-hand heater with the necessary ducting. Occasionally there were public protests about the shelter and its occupants, but no one ever made a serious complaint.
Another assistant worker came from among the number of the residents. Tony was a very unhappy man and had run away from his home, wife and children the other side of the country. He was duly appointed when a vacancy occurred, and lived probably quite illegally – in the priest’s room over the church, drawing up the ladder after him at night. He was very capable and made many improvements both to the premises and to the lives of the residents. Eventually, after the chairman of the committee made contact with Tony’s family, he was reconciled with them and left us.
After some years, we realized that St James was an unsatisfactory building for the care of homeless people: it was expensive to maintain and difficult to clean. In 1976 the Historic Churches Trust provided us with St Martins at Oak in Oak Street which had been converted into a church hall. By 1979, we had three full-time and two part-time workers, and the organization was beginning to settle into a regular pattern of provision for residents. We wrestled with the constant problems of a common life-style involving vagrancy, collapse, temporary Night Shelter accommodation, and, for some people, ejection, following seriously anti-social behaviour such as violence and drunkenness.
Jim did not have a good start in his life: his mother was a prostitute and his father was her father and therefore his grandfather. At the age of four he was taken into ‘care’ by the Social Services. The reason seemed to be that his mother’s life-style was harmful to him; but it is interesting that his sister born a year later was not taken into care. In the next seven years Jim lived in five different Children’s Homes. The only other friend he ever had during this time was another boy or similar age. Because the workers felt that this was a homosexual relationship, they were parted. Jim was fostered at the age of eight by an elderly working-class couple whose own child had grown up and left home. The foster father regularly assaulted Jim sexually and when he objected he was locked up in a cupboard for many hours. Eventually this was discovered by his doctor and the boy was removed. The foster father went to prison for three years. The intelligence and artistic skill which Jim possessed helped the Social Services to interest another pair of foster parents, also elderly. They were a retired professional couple living in a large country house. At the age of 12, Jim started a new life with a totally new set of values and customs to learn. He made a good, even loving, relationship with his foster father, but unfortunately he died three years later, and Jim was partly blamed for it by his foster mother. He endured a worsening situation but as soon as he could he left – at the age of sixteen. A few days later, he arrived at the night shelter. I knew Jim when he was developing his ‘ Baby Face conmanship ploy’: he would approach benign looking people after church on Sunday with a Bible under his arm, tell them a story, probably partly based on his appalling childhood, and relieve them of a few bank notes. He was persuaded to stop this. After bouts of drink and drug abuse which threatened both his health and his life, Jim, now in his thirties, is in one of the Trust’s supported group homes, and still grappling with the dreadful legacy of his past.
But for those who run the shelter, it is a constant struggle against the despair which runs into the soul when people like Ernest and Jim come back again and again. Are the cards stacked against such people? Do they bring such disaster upon themselves? The individualist theory of personal responsibility would have us believe this, but I look upon the residents and consider their life stories, such as I know of them, and I cannot accept this simplistic explanation. I become angry, and dare to even believe it is righteous anger, when I hear, as I once did, a leader of the County Council saying that if he found a tramp in the gutter he would leave him in there. All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people should do nothing. We may not be able to prevent the tragedy of an Ernest, but we do have it within our power to alleviate his lot.
The whole organisation is now much more like a therapeutic community, and close attention is paid to understanding the residents as human beings as well as meeting their immediate basic human needs for food, warmth, shelter and clothing.