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Day 10: ‘Stealing has more dignity.’ Discuss

1997 September 2
by Paul Vallely

You can rely on a taxi driver. The trouble with these homeless, he told me, is that they are frauds. “My sister had a pub and one of them would come in every evening and change pounds 80 of coins into notes,” he said as we journeyed between two posh parts of Edinburgh. “He was in a wheelchair and wore a combat jacket to make it look like he had been invalided out of the Army. But in reality he was a football fan who had jumped under a train and lost a leg in Paris when Hearts lost 5-1 to Paris St Germain.” So he was a cripple? “Well, yes, but he shouldn’t have been wearing the combat jacket.”

The Edinburgh Evening News was of similar mind: “City gets tough on violent vagrants,” it proclaimed that day, at the end of a year-long campaign. But were homelessness, drunkenness, violence and aggressive begging all necessarily synonymous, I wondered, as I knocked at the door of the Bethany Christian Trust in that part of Leith which is the red-light and drug- dealing area.

“Can you really make pounds 80 a day at it?” I asked a group of former down- and-outs, who were residents at the trust’s drink and drugs rehabilitation centre.

“You could if you did an eight-hour shift at it,” said one grizzled character. “But I was a park-bench drinker; my sole concern was where the next bottle was coming from. So I would just beg enough for the next drink and then go and get it. It was a despicable activity; I hated myself.” Begging is demeaning, agreed one of his fellows – “at least stealing has some dignity”. Philosophers, please discuss.

It was tea break. The group, in which tattoos and worn-out faces seemed obligatory, were spending the morning in a group criticism session in which one of them was subjected to the scrutiny of their peers. That morning’s victim wasn’t there; he had gone to his room to calm down. “None of us like it when it’s our turn,” said one hollow-cheeked man, “but it works. Other rehabs are like prisons, or they leave you idle all day. Here they keep your mind occupied.” It’s not enough to do the time here, the centre’s manager, Gordon Weir, told them. “You have to dig deep to find the seeds of your addictive behaviour.”

For all that, when the trust’s director, Alan Berry, a former Baptist minister in the city, gives talks at churches about the project, the question most often asked is: “Should we give to beggars?” He says “no”.

“I’ve had more flak about this than any other subject,” he said. “Giving may make the giver feel good or less guilty, but it’s not good for people to receive hand-outs. Moreover, they’re not begging for needs but to sustain habits. Instead of helping the person to improve, you’re encouraging them in a life of drunkenness or drugs.” Buy food, give a meal voucher, pay an electricity bill, buy a railway ticket, he says, but don’t give money. “In the ladder out of the pit of homelessness the aim must be to give a level of support that doesn’t encourage dependency.”

“He’s right,” said Jim, who works in the rehab kitchen. “If they insist on giving, they should give to places such as Bethany, which relies on charity for all its money.” Jim should know. He has been into the rehab eight times. He always relapses. Amiable when sober, he becomes a different being with drink. “When I go out I can’t face the loneliness, boredom, isolation,” he said. It is tacitly understood by all that Jim is now there for life.

But Jim is, in his way, a success story. Bethany routinely fails: 90 per cent of rehabilitation attempts nationwide do. Alan Berry does not like to put figures on it, but Bethany has a failure rate of a mere 84 per cent. But isn’t even that dispiriting? “What is failure?” asked Gordon Weir. “For many, being here at all is a success. Relapse can be part of the process of recovery. We’re great believers in the second chance.”

The fruits of this are all around. In the kitchen, Neil, a former resident, is on the staff as cook. The trust’s plumber used to run drugs – amphetamines – from the Continent. The hostel’s manager, John Rodgers, is “a recovering alcoholic” who came to Bethany for help 10 years ago. “I would do anything for a drink. I stole my mother’s pension book. I don’t think you can get any lower. I’ll never forget the expression on her face when she found out. Bethany changed my life dramatically. They broke down my hard exterior; they treated me with love and respect.”

Over the last decade he has gone from sleeping in a gutter to being asked to take charge of a hostel for 28 people, managing 15 professional staff. “I get a lot of opportunities to share the love I have received. I know what people have been through because I’ve been through it myself; I also know when they are trying to pull the wool over my eyes.” For all his compassion, he is no soft touch. That morning he had evicted someone who had kicked down a door the night before and threatened a staff member. “These aren’t just people who need a front door and a key. They have a bagful of problems – from personal hygiene and poor communication skills, to an inability to budget.”

Ian Paterson runs the trust’s employment training programme to deal with that. It teaches the homeless how to write a CV, make a follow-up phone call and handle a job interview. But with many it has to start much further back. West Lothian Council estimates that in disadvantaged areas, 30 per cent of the population have difficulty with reading and writing. “Many of those we deal with are second or third generation unemployed,” said Paterson. “Many are so far behind, they have to be taught the most basic life skills – like the need to get up and arrive at work on time every day. They have to be shown even that there can be satisfaction in work.” The trust tries to do that by offering training in the shops it runs to raise funds selling good quality second-hand goods in upmarket Edinburgh suburbs.

The day ended at 10pm with Alan Berry visiting the Care Van, which hands out soup and clothes on Waverley Bridge for an hour every night. The side of the van bore the words: “Staffed by people from Edinburgh and Lothian churches, extending a helping hand to people in need”.

“Some 200 Christians a month take turns to staff the van,” said Alan Berry. “I sometimes wonder who it does most good to – those who staff the van, or those who get the soup.”

It is not, fortunately, a question over which he wastes too much time.

Tomorrow Day 11: Cumbria’s farmers have the Belgian blues

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