To our surprise, a young man turned up from the local snooker club and asked if he could join us. Michael had been on the street in that neighbourhood when he had been going through a particularly difficult period in his personal life and with his family.
Wonderfully, he had made it through the church doors to find a warm welcome, new friends and a vibrant faith. He’s now back at home and in a much better place personally, and he fetched his sleeping bag to join in the ‘Advent Sleepout Challenge’.
All over the country, people have been taking part in this Challenge. We, in Bradford, had a video link that night with the youth group from All Saints Church in Ilkley. The young people had built a shelter which they slept in as part of a project raising awareness of homelessness and poverty issues in the region. That shelter has now been turned into a Christmas nativity installation.
We were grateful for Michael’s company, and the hope he embodied. Because homelessness is a worryingly growing issue for West Yorkshire and our nation as a whole. One in 10 people in England say that they have personally experienced homelessness, defined not just as sleeping on the streets, but also including living in a situation of violence, in poor or overcrowded conditions or in a place where a person has no rights to stay. In 2015, double the number of people were sleeping rough than in 2010.
St Mungo’s charity reports that just over half of UK nationals living on the streets are in need of support for a mental health problem; this rises to 60 per cent among women.
A friend who volunteers with Bradford Street Angels told me of a young man who he now mentors. Vic, from an abusive family background, has learning difficulties and can’t read. When his parents died, he couldn’t manage the finances and lost his home, spending terrifying nights under a bridge before ending up at A&E. He is now off the street, volunteering and contributing much to his local community, but still needs a lot of support.
Even with a group of friends, I have to admit to being nervous as I contemplated a night on the pavement in Bradford. We joked about what would happen if people saw us and called the police. I imagined telling the constable, “I’m the Bishop of Bradford” only to have her respond, “Sure – and I’m the Pope!” But more seriously, the street can be a dangerous place, and many people suffer from substance abuse and violence. The charity, Crisis, reports that almost one in 10 rough sleepers had experienced sexual assault within the last year.
In the weeks leading up to and after my night in the churchyard, I talked with homeless people I came across as I went around the city. What I found most powerful was that, more than a cup of tea or a sandwich, they often valued the fact that someone asked their name, looked them in the eye and was interested in their story. What they found most hurtful was people walking past as if they didn’t exist or, worse, treating them like a piece of rubbish.
Jeff, a gentle artist with a sharp sense of humour, began to weep as I sat next to him. He told me that some kids had set his few belongings on fire, including all his documentation. He scratched out a living making chalk drawings on the pavement. He didn’t ask me for money. He wanted to be listened to. He wanted to have someone to pray with.
A powerful moment for me was when I looked up at the words etched over the door of the church where we were sleeping. In beautiful painted letters, they read: ‘This is none other than the house of God. This is the gate of heaven.’ Amazingly, I realised that these were words in the Bible spoken by another rough sleeper, Jacob, after he had run away from home and dreamed of angels climbing up and down his ‘stairway to heaven’.
I have discovered a whole world of Bradford generosity, from ‘Pay As You Feel’ cafés such as the Saltaire Canteen to a lunch I’ll be going to at the Khidmat Centre sponsored by the charity, Muslim Hands, offering food and cheer to people who would otherwise be on their own on Christmas Day. For a week at a time, through the ‘Inn Churches’ programme, different congregations across Bradford and Keighley share their time and buildings to provide rough sleepers with a quality meal, an evening of games and company, a warm place to sleep and a hearty breakfast.
There is light in the darkness – Happy Christmas!
Toby Howarth is the Bishop of Bradford.