This week I want to tell you about Ryan. Ryan is a young man who has just started a new job. He earns £17,500 a year.
He lives in a flat in a quiet neighbourhood, mostly occupied by older people, whom he helps when he can. He has a brand new sofa of which he is extremely proud.
He is polite, articulate and extremely thankful for all he has. Because for four years Ryan lived on the streets of Leeds. He slept in doorways and was spat on and kicked. He used drugs and alcohol and didn’t care if he lived or died. Because he thought no one cared about him. Only someone did.
Last week I met Ryan and a group of angels. And they are angels. It was the worst of nights, driving rain and freezing temperatures. Ryan was among about 20 people who every week deliver more than just a hot meal to those in need on the streets of Leeds. They are the Homeless Street Angels.
Becky Joyce began helping the homeless five years ago. A young mum, she loaded up a shopping bag full of goodies and handed them out in gratitude for all she had when others had so little.
Her sister Shelley joined her and then when their other sister Abi died they set about making a difference in her memory. They are aiming high and plan to raise enough to open a day centre in her name.
But that’s for the future. For now their main concern is that their ancient delivery van has just given up the ghost.
They are being loaned one until they raise enough for another. From that van they unload trolley after trolley which they drag through the streets of Leeds every Thursday night delivering more than a hundred hot meals complete with puddings, all home made.
They also have hundreds of items of warm clothing, shoes, hats and gloves all donated or bought with the thousands of pounds they now raise. The food is eaten with thanks and gratitude. But more importantly they dole out sackfuls of love and bagfuls of hope. And it is humbling to watch those who queue out in the rain respond to their no-nonsense type of kindness.
First in the queue was John. Not his real name. He showed me the cuts on his arms he had self-inflicted that day. He also told me he had smoked crack cocaine that morning which he said was bad, very bad. He had been sofa surfing at different houses for a few weeks but he had had a row with his equally chaotic friends so that night, in that awful weather, he would be sleeping in a tent on the outskirts of the city. But he would be all right, he said, as the Street Angels had given him a brand new sleeping bag and a warm coat.
I didn’t catch the name of the woman who cried about the damp running down the walls of her new place. She slept on the floor because she didn’t have a bed and dried her pillows in the oven because they got so wet. Becky took her number and promised her a bed by the end of the week. She also promised she would get someone to check on the damp. And she will. She has found homes for more than 30 permanently living on the streets and supports scores of others helping them with simple tasks like how to pay the bills.
I have heard everything that has been said about those who live on the streets. That they are simply beggars. That they shouldn’t be allowed to have dogs because they only use them to extract sympathy. That they are all users or alcoholics. That if some of them have homes to go to there is no need for them to be on the streets. There is some small element of truth in all of those things. But that’s only part of the story.
We stumbled across Peter and his little dog. He was so thin and soaking wet through. He couldn’t eat much because he wasn’t used to eating a lot. His dog was warm and fed. He was, he said, his only friend. Peter had a house but he preferred to sit cross-legged in a doorway in the rain because that’s what he was used to. He would wait, he said, until the city went quiet and then he would go home. But he would be back tomorrow.
Leeds is among the top ten cities in the country for homeless deaths. Seventy people died on the streets of Yorkshire last year.
I don’t know the answer. I do know the homeless do not deserve to be attacked and abused as they are every single day. I also know that the Homeless Street Angels, and other charities like theirs, keep them alive. And I now know how grateful they are for every act of kindness. If you can help, please do. Becky’s homeless friends will get a Christmas dinner and a Christmas present. But as Becky would say, angels are not just needed at Christmas.