Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Handouts and soup kitchens

I vividly remember the first time I ever visited a soup kitchen. I had not long been laid off from a job I really liked - company restructuring or somesuch meant they couldn't keep me on. So, a low point and no job and for whatever reason (I can't remember now), temporarily no benefit. I knew, more or less, where this church was that was giving out this handout but I truly didn't know what to expect.

I remember walking along the main road nervous, with so many questions. Did I look the part? Would I have to prove I was homeless? I wasn't. How did these things work? Was I going to have to queue up and then be given some food? What were the other people going to be like? My experience of homelessness was forlorn individuals sat in the underpass that leads to the tube with cardboard signs asking for money, written on the sign in marker pen.

Then there was the embarrassment - I couldn't for the life of me think of a time I'd asked for charity. Here I was, a middle-aged man begging - almost - for a meal. I was ashamed of myself.

As it was, it was fine: busy and welcoming, friendly even, everyone seemed relaxed. It was a little bit like a restaurant. Tables laid, you sat down and a meal was brought to you, course by course. The thing that struck me most was that all the punters - for want of a better term - were treated with the utmost courtesy and respect.

Inevitably there is a social side to such places. People who go are perhaps understandably cagey but personal stuff trickles through. Due to the fact that I liked this place I continued to go even though I couldn't claim to be in desperate need.

I've got to know (to varying degrees) many people who use this soup kitchen. People share stories about themselves, the day-to-day bits and pieces. I've made friends with some folk, even found real mates.

The place I'm talking about is used by a surprisingly large number of people from all manner of backgrounds and age groups. Each person who goes along has their own reasons.

There are dozens of stories I could tell you about his place, there's all manner of weird and wonderful people who go there.

There are two ladies of mature years who turn up without fail. Then they complain about it incessantly; the food, the other people who use it, non-stop moaning - they are always there nonetheless.

The place also has its own resident photographer: there's this one chap who comes along, an avid photographer and a charming fellow who always has a camera round his neck. He snaps everyone; volunteers and the other users of the soup kitchen. A selection of his photos cover a noticeboard in the hall and the place always uses his photos in their publicity and newsletters.

A tacit support network can develop. One example that springs to mind is an elderly disabled woman who uses one of those walking frames with wheels - anyway she took a fall and was hospitalized. When she came out she'd broken her wrist, couldn't use the rollator and the NHS couldn't provide a wheelchair although they did send a nurse every morning (that she didn't really want). It was people from the soup kitchen who managed to get her a wheelchair and helped her around North London for the next few weeks so she could carry on with her life.

But the most poignant example of the care that people show for one another concerns one of the users who passed away. A chap who was in his sixties and of poor health. He'd lived outside for more years than any of us could remember. At his memorial service there were a lot of people from the soup kitchen, staff and volunteers past and present and many of the users. The soup kitchen made up more than fifty per cent of the people paying their respects.

OK, I'm certain that not every soup kitchen up and down the land is like this but I'm sure that most have some of these elements. A welcome, good food, togetherness and support. These surely are some of the ingredients that make up what makes a community, which is an oft overused phrase.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

The patron saint of the unemployed

A funny thing happened to me down the dole office the other day. The person I was seeing listened to, and heard, every word I said and was clearly engaged in our short meeting. She was unfailingly polite the whole time, didn't chat to any of her colleagues about her children, what she was doing that evening or where she was going on holiday. Didn't even mention her lunch.

When she asked me questions, they were pertinent to the scant information they hold on the screen about me. As opposed to the usual, "Well why won't you consider being a traffic warden Mr So-andSo?" (Do you mean why don't I want to walk 20-plus miles a day getting verbally abused throughout the course of my shift with the very real risk of assault?) Her suggestions were helpful "have you thought about..." and polite.

Now, I know these people don't have the most enviable job and they have to put up with a fair amount of crap from a bunch of unco-operative and surly people. However there are large numbers of us who push through the doors of the local job centre who, although we feel degraded by the whole experience, are polite, punctual and struggle to remain motivated in spite of our joblessness.

You see, I've always thought there's a special part of the training that the dole office provides that's called Three Days Intensive Training in the Art of Downright Rudeness including two extra modules in how to ignore members of the public and coming across as aloof.

Anyway, I got myself signed on and trotted out my usual question at that point: "So is everything OK with my claim then?" This woman didn't even sigh, she just tapped away at her keyboard. "Sorry to ask," I said.

On hearing her reply I nearly fell off the chair."Look," she said. "If I had to live on £65 a week I'd want to know if it was darn well going to turn up!"

This woman should be made the patron saint of the unemployed.

As if the experience of going into these places isn't bad enough, the convoluted system they use is specifically designed to confuse even the most clear thinking individual, chock-full of arcane and seemingly contradictory rules. I swear Dr Who would find it a test of his intellect to sign on. Obviously he's a Time-Lord so he doesn't have to, but I'm sure you see my point.

Then, then the Government has the gall to ensure that these places are staffed, almost exclusively, by some of the most wilfully obtuse people on God's Green Earth! If you feel you're being treated badly or you think they're being rude and have the temerity to query this (no swearing please, this is the dole office), invariably the response is: "Sorry, not my fault. It's the rules."

The recent incident I've recounted tells me it doesn't have to be like that. At my recent appointment the woman concerned was able to tick her boxes, meet her targets and treat me like a fellow human being - all at the same time.