As you probably know, we live in a church in city centre Birmingham. It is, in many ways, a strange place to live: our nearest neighbours are mostly not other homes, but shops and offices. Those who sleep nearby are usually transient: the luckier ones, in local hotels; the unluckier, in local doorways.
Sadly, we have become accustomed, though I hope not hardened, to the reality of seeing homeless people on the streets of the city centre, and often, quite literally, on our doorstep. Even in the three and a half years we have been here, we don’t need statistical evidence to tell us that homelessness in our city has increased: we have seen it happening before our very eyes.
One evening, a few weeks ago, when we were returning late in the evening from I don’t remember where, we came to the front door of the church to find a homeless man curled up in a sleeping bag on the porch.
I would be the first to admit that the homeless community, if such a disparate group can be described as such, is not one with which I have found it easy to engage. I am not proud of the fact that often, I ‘walk by on the other side’ but I can’t deny the reality. There are good reasons: I am busily engaged with other things which are equally valid and valuable ministries; and less good ones: mostly tied up, almost certainly in fear and prejudice, but couched more comfortably in the language of complex challenges which are beyond my capacities.
But this particular encounter has stayed with me. It struck me because of the exchange of words, and in particular because of his opening words to us as we approached: “I’m sorry”
It struck me because it drew attention to our creation of and participation in the kind of world in which a man forced to sleep on a church door step feels he needs to apologise to the one going in to sleep in a warm bed inside. Those words stopped me in my tracks and made me deeply, deeply sad for our society.
He explained he had chosen the spot because our CCTV made him feel safer. He had recently returned to Birmingham, was not familiar with the communities here that might offer a degree of comfort and safety to many of those who are outside our church. He offered to move away.
I did not invite him in: maybe I should have, but maybe not. At least I was able to assure him he was welcome to sleep on our porch. I was able to say that it should be me that was apologising, for a society and situation in which he had no choice but to sleep outside. I was able to offer a cup of hot coffee and to hear something of his story, albeit for only a few minutes. I imagine it is a story which is both unique and also exactly the same as the many others who spend their nights in our city centre’s doorways.
He told us he had a housing appointment the following morning. I haven’t seen him since. I hope his story, at least, has a happy ending. There are many which don’t. Only last week the local news told us of a homeless man discovered dead on the street. He was in his thirties. The same age, more or less, as me.
When we moved here, one of the roles the church asked of us was to listen to the voices of the city. The homeless who congregate around our building are, perhaps more than any other, one of the groups whose voice we should be straining to hear. I have not found it easy.
Though he will never know it, I am grateful for one tiny opportunity to hear something of one of those voices.