‘Iknow homeless people who’ve taken a beating. Sometimes it’s from other homeless people and sometimes it’s from people just on their way home. It’s scandalous that poverty is seen as something only in developing nations; it’s true, Africa does have problems, but there’s a lot of poverty here in Britain.” Brighton has never been my favourite place, I admit – pretty, maybe, but also seedy and sinister, a town with terrible alcohol and drug problems. But I’m down here, feeling a bit odd in my work suit, the only person in town who doesn’t dress like a bicycle courier and sport a tattoo and long, scraggly hair and bits of metal in their head, because we were fascinated to read about Laurence England, a 31-year-old Catholic who for the past four weeks has been living out of his car, while writing his blog, That the Bones You Have Crushed May Thrill (you can find it at http://alturl.com/wj36).
A pious Catholic homeless blogger – what an interesting story, we thought a young man continuing the Franciscan tradition of poverty.
Laurence greets me outside St Mary’s Magdalene’s, a church 10 minutes from the station, and although casually dressed, he is probably the only young person in town with St Anthony of Padua around his neck, a personal hero, along with St Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa.
“Mother Teresa’s entire motivation was that we should see Christ in the poor, as if she was administering to Jesus herself,” he explains. “In the Gospel when He said: ‘I was hungry and you fed me’ he’s identified himself with the poor. In the poor Jesus is present in a special way. Francis was born to a very rich family and he gave everything up. Even if we’re not called to live total poverty, like he was, we can still take Jesus at his word.” In the kitchen Laurence explains in a deep-voiced south-eastern accent (he hails from Letchworth, Hertfordshire) that he converted at 23, after a period of two years moving towards the Church having gone from agnosticism to a Pentecostal/Baptist church then Anglicanism and then gradually came over.
Apart from blogging he also busks (he’s a big Smiths fan) and helps with the accounts at the Grade-II listed church, a neo-Gothic building dating to 1862 (it is beautiful, but slightly falling to pieces, and in need of £100,000 to fix the roof).
But he doesn’t live in poverty, he emphasises. “I’m living in my car as a temporary thing. My parents are helping me move to a studio flat in September.” Instead, he wants to talk about real poverty, which is why he’s brought along Malcolm Gregory, a 26year-old dressed in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt – his only possessions. Malcolm has a slightly distant air. His right eye looks away while he talks, and he scratches himself occasionally, uncomfortable and nervous. Originally from Chichester, his family moved north at some point and he speaks with a Mancunian accent.
He tells me he finds it difficult to find a job because he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. I admit I was initially slightly uncomfortable; I’m aware that most schizophrenics are not violent and indeed more sane people attack the mentally ill than vice versa (which says something strange about the human race), and Malcolm has been kicked in the face since becoming homeless.
“Four weeks ago my girlfriend kicked me out of the flat in Manchester after an argument,” he says. “I thought she was sleeping with her ex-boyfriend. I tried to make my way here because I had family here.” He has no family in Chichester anymore, and his parents live in a onebedroom flat in Manchester. His father has suffered a stroke and his mother is also sick. Although he calls them every day they cannot care for themselves, let alone their son.
Laurence found Malcolm at First Base, a council-run clinic where homeless people can get a meal and medical help. Malcolm says they’re very friendly there, but it’s clear there’s only so much they can do.
Laurence says: “It’s notoriously difficult to get accommodation if you don’t have a local connection, ie family. The problem is that when people turn up and they don’t have a local connection they’re stuck on the streets, hopping from hostel to hostel. The only help they’re given is a oneway ticket back to where they come from. It’s one way to deal with homelessness but it’s not the most compassionate. We need a more Christian response, and I don’t think that punishing people is the way ahead.” The soup run that the church organises every Wednesday is a lifeline. Malcolm has no religious background, and nor do most of the homeless here, but Laurence points out “the Church helps everyone”.
“With regard to the Catholic faith and poverty,” he says. “Catholics are called to either some sort of solidarity or to minister to the poor in some way.” The problem of poverty is getting worse, as the recession starts to bite. “Yesterday there was a family at the soup run and I thought: ‘Good grief, it is quite shocking. It’s the first time I’ve seen mothers and fathers with their children.’ The worst thing is the humiliation for the parents.” What has brought this about? The Left cites the greedy ethos of the Thatcher years and the higher unemployment levels that follows. The Right blames the decline of church-going and its social bonding, immigration, the rise in divorce rates and fatherlessness, and increasing levels of drugs use.
“I suppose society has fractured more than ever,” Laurence says. “But there’s also just poverty. In Malcolm’s case they’re not even a broken family, they’re just poor.” “Brighton has always had its problems,” says Fr Ray Blake, who has been in the city for nine years and is well-known to many for his popular blog, St Mary Magdalen (http://marymagdalen.blogspot.com). “But it’s increased because of immigration and the rather hard-hearted policies of the Government.” Fr Blake is sat beside Mary-Jane Burkett, who works for a Sussex-based charity, Brighton Voices in Exile, which helps asylum seekers. The organisation was started by the Anglican Diocese of Winchester, but most of the volunteers – including lawyers and medical professionals who donate their time – are Catholic. They’re not made of money and occupy the basement of the church. Mary-Jane worked with trafficked women before joining this charity, and has seven years experience of helping immigrants. She has a cheerful demeanour for someone who can effortlessly bring up the most horrific anecdotes about rape and torture in faroff lands, as well as the lesser brutality of the UK authorities.
“We had a mother and a 15-year-old and a 12-yearold; immigration bashed the door in, they were held for nine months,” she recalls. “The boy had to do his GCSEs in the detention centre. They were released because some of the boy’s friends at school organised a sit-in.
“There was a Zimbabwean lady in her 50s sleeping on Brighton beach. She was going up to Croydon every month, and she still had a mark around her ankle where they had tried to put the tag on her swolen legs..” Because Britain has too many people to process, and it’s almost impossible to tell a “genuine” asylum seeker from someone who just wants to escape poverty or a crummy life or the law, the Government has made it as hard and unpleasant as possible for refugees. But they keep on coming, and now have to compete with the British poor.
It can be difficult mix, as “Alex Jackson” – not his real name but his adopted British one – can testify. He came here on July 17 2004, from Iran, but the asylum rules meant he had to live in Leicester, one of the allotted centres in the country. He hated it but while in England he converted to Christianity.
He has been attacked several times and on one occasion a homeless woman set fire to him. He shows me the piece of paper from the police about the woman’s court case, and describes the homeless shelter where Brighton’s various transients bed down for the night in lurid detail, full of drunkeness, threats and needles.
Tonight he will sleep rough. He cannot get a job until he has an address but at least his application has been accepted and he can work, which puts him way ahead of the pack. He wonders why more is not done for Christians in this country, as foreign converts to Shia Islam are given help in Iran (but he also suggests some other Iranian converts are secret Muslims).
Mary-Ann’s answer is to let asylum seekers take jobs rather than charity, which they hate to do, as advocated by the “Right to Work” campaign – although with the economy wobbling any proposal that involves more immigrants or fewer jobs is not going to go down well. In the meantime people will just have to rely on the kindness of strangers.
Cheques to help the church can be made payable to “St Mary Magdalen’s Church” 55 Upper North Street, Brighton BN1 3FH. To help Voices in Exile go to www. brightonvoicesinexile.org