Approaching the Christmas in the mid nineties I lived alone in East London, a year after a break up. I had seen myself walking away from the bee swarm of quarrel and disappointment with heart high, a playboy in a city full of women. Predictably enough, I was sad and alone. The approach of Christmas, the short dark days, a dreadful prospect.
I sought a way to end to the downward spiral, an antidote to the self-centredness of depression. The Simon Community was a "community of homeless people and volunteers living and working together in a spirit of acceptance, tolerance and understanding", the ad said. They always welcomed volunteers. When I left a message, someone called back within a day.
My introduction was a half hour chat with an earnest young graduate, then a meet and greet with other volunteers and some rough looking characters who were getting some respite from the street at the shelter. I remember a grubby junkie with the shakes, he needed his methadone. Then, a few hours rattling a box of coins in Camden Lock, on a day alternately bright and wet.
Most other volunteers seemed to be students. As a mature person living in London, with a driving license to boot, I was hot property. I was soon volunteered to drive the weekly "tea run". They seemed grateful to have me around.
Simon is wonderful, if outwardly chaotic. Perhaps that reflects the people it cares for. Full time workers live with ex-homeless at the houses (there were two). This is a stepping stone back to their own apartment, job and life, and it works sometimes. When it does the phrase “Joe has his own place now” is spoken with a sense of pride. But there are also those who will stay at the houses for years, not strong or determined enough to make the further step. The community forms a protective layer around them.
Part time co-workers (I was one) help out. The tea run, a big blue Vauxhall van full of tea, coffee, food, blankets, clothes and people, leaves one of the houses in the small hours and meanders around Central London, to the places where rough sleepers congregate. The run happens on the same days each week, and follows a route which street people know.
The giving of food and drink is a courtesy. Simon is a real community. The tea run helps it connect with the itinerants, forms a point of contact. Workers see the same often, so trust and friendship can grow. They hear stories and gossip, listen to concerns, perform favours, share jokes. Listen, listen. They might notice deteriorating health, an increase in fear or instability, and offer the chance to get off the street, into the shelter for a while.
So, for the next several years, apart from a break to travel, I would get that big, funny smelling old van on a Sunday night, and get up at some crazy time the next morning. The next six hours would be spent driving, collecting people, talking to people, being with people, until I would park the van at one of the shelters at around ten, to take the bus to work. (My employer was supportive.)
My depression did not magically lift, but the tea run did help me through that time. The people I met and spoke with were often fascinating. I caught glimpses of a diversity of human experience. An old man, mentally affected by some long ago war, sits at the same bench each day, chatting happily to whoever will pass the time. The husband who was simply too proud to go home after his wife’s infidelity, and who lived what seemed to be a surprisingly normal life on the streets. The unfortunates for whom alcohol is a daily temptation which is never far away. One glass means a three day bender. Kids from northern towns who seemed to drift to the capital for no other reason than that it was there, a place with a big name, and big disappointments.
And I got what I desperately needed – human warmth and contact. I was someone to these people, even if I felt like a nobody to myself. Feeling redeemed and elated each time I got through the run, life made sense for a while. I would sit on the bus to work, with a kind of joy inside, a warmth, tears of emotion even. I was giving something, I felt needed, and that helped me. The feeling would last a day, maybe two.
I learnt also how thin is the line that separates “us”, normal people with a place in the world, from “them”, the unwanted, the outsiders – how frail and illusory is the net of convention that holds us in place. Anybody might fall through. Do you doubt it? Is your life secure – with all your friends, your family, your money? Maybe. Or does some thunderbolt that you cannot dream of await you, to change you and your life in ways you cannot imagine? I saw that fear in the faces of some morning commuters, walking to work past the unkempt, hairy beings who bunched around the van, shivering and talking in the morning sun. I saw it in the hostility of some of them.
“There but for the grace of god go I”. True, but that does not reach far enough towards the truth. It’s fearful talk. Truly, the internal nomad is a part of everyone. It’s the Fool card in the tarot pack, hiding amongst the kings and queens. The one who wants to kick over the traces, take freedom at any price. It's angry at this regimented society, at being automated and denied. Do you see him in yourself?
Then, one day, it ended.
“Cup of tea, mate?”
It was not the first time, by far – of course, not all are grateful. But, something in me changed, as I walked away. You fuck off. Why am I doing this? Let someone else have a go now. I have other things to do. In truth, I was just ready for something else. It had been enough.
Now I am far from London. Another ex, a career, children to care for and care for me, friends. Life is busy and full. But I look back at the Simon tea run as a special time, an experience I would not change for anything. If I was closer, maybe it would be time to make a call, drive the van again. I’d love to do it again sometimes. Fancy a cup of tea?