Imagine being out in the pouring rain, chilled to the bone and having no one to turn to. Do you ever find yourself having that sort of thought? It’s on days like today – when the rain has been almost relentless with the wind hurling all sorts of things around, paying no heed to the status of anything – that I do find myself pondering such questions. Cheerful soul, aren’t I? Well actually, homelessness can and does happen to people from all sorts of backgrounds and social strata. A manager of a shelter for homeless people told me that in recent years he has seen many more middle-aged men, who once had high-flying careers, having been made redundant and lost their homes, sleeping rough – often in their cars (all that is left of a ‘better’ life).
Sleeping rough has been increasing exponentially in recent years. In one year, records released by the Department of Communities and Local Government show a 23% increase of people sleeping rough (from 1,768 to 2,181 on any one night). http://www.housingjustice.org.uk/news.php/35/press-release-rough-sleeping-up-by-23-in-england.
Don’t get me started on the reasons underlying this increase! For now, I’m just thinking of the hopelessness of having nowhere to go and no-one to turn to. That overwhelming feeling of not knowing what to do next; that there is no place you can put your head.
You see, when I’m out walking, especially on the very worst of days, there is something so reassuring about the knowledge that, whatever it feels like now, there will be an end to it – a place that will be warm and dry; where there are towels to dry your hair; somewhere you can shake out your coat and hang it; a hot cup of tea and maybe even a bowl of soup! These things, small as they seem, are the things that drive you on; like twinkling lights in the distance.
When we did the Trailtrekker earlier this year (100k in 30 hours, walking with no sleep, across the Yorkshire Dales), the sight of the water-stations and checkpoints at regular intervals along the way rose up like mirages. We’d be hobbling and aching and just about all done in, then we’d see a sign “500m to next checkpoint” and suddenly our feet could move faster, our legs propelled us on with renewed vigour. From somewhere, because we’d been given hope, we found an inner cheerfulness and we could go on.
It brings to mind the story of Janet Dempster (‘Janet’s Repentance’) who is married to an abusive husband, who is also the town’s lawyer. She is a proud and beautiful woman, but has turned to drink to help her cope with her disastrous marriage. We’d say today that she was alcohol dependent, but then her neighbours talked of her being ‘unwell’ or ‘having headaches’ – this is a Victorian novel, you see, so the actual ‘issue’ is never really mentioned! The nearest we get to it is in reading that her beauty ‘is enhanced by the faint physical traces of her addiction’.
Matters come to a head when Dempster comes home in a drunken rage and violently turns his wife out in the night, wearing only a nightdress. She has nowhere to go and no one to turn to. At one point she finds herself sitting on the freezing cobble stones and contemplates simply staying there, letting the night take her. Then, from somewhere, comes the memory of a kind, elderly friend and she makes her way through the streets to her house and manages to wake her:
|‘It is I, Mrs Pettifer; it is Janet Dempster. Take me in, for pity’s sake.’|
|‘Merciful God! What has happened?’|
|‘Robert has turned me out. I have been in the cold a long while.’|
|Mrs Pettifer said no more, but hurried away from the window, and was soon at the door with a light in her hand.|
|‘Come in, my poor dear, come in,’ said the good woman in a tremulous voice, drawing Janet within the door. ‘Come into my warm bed, and may God in heaven save and comfort you.’|
|The pitying eyes, the tender voice, the warm touch, caused a rush of new feeling in Janet. Her heart swelled, and she burst out suddenly, like a child, into loud passionate sobs. Mrs Pettifer could not help crying with her, but she said, ‘Come upstairs, my dear, come. Don’t linger in the cold.’|
|She drew the poor sobbing thing gently up-stairs, and persuaded her to get into the warm bed. But it was long before Janet could lie down. She sat leaning her head on her knees, convulsed by sobs, while the motherly woman covered her with clothes and held her arms round her to comfort her with warmth. At last the hysterical passion had exhausted itself, and she fell back on the pillow; but her throat was still agitated by piteous after-sobs, such as shake a little child even when it has found a refuge from its alarms on its mother’s lap.|
A friend who needs so little explanation; who asks no questions, but instantly responds to this desperate need: isn’t that the kind of friend we would all wish for? To know there is someone who can offer a ‘warm bed’ without hesitation or concern for themselves, must surely offer the most beautiful beacon of hope. Yet, how many of us can be sure that we have someone in our lives who we could call upon when the going gets really tough, or the night is most dreadfully cold? When I first read this, only two years ago, I recall stopping and thinking about this. Did I have that person, that one person, who could be relied upon to open the door no matter what time of day or night it was? And would they offer a spot in their own warm bed for me if I really needed it?
I consider myself truly blessed, because I didn’t have to think for too long and was able to list a number of people who I could confidently turn to in such a situation. Of course, we don’t want to face this really, do we? It isn’t going to happen to us. Really?
Sadly, many people do feel completely alone and have no one to turn to. Mother Theresa said that loneliness was the worst disease that anyone can endure and I read in the Guardian today that the “number of men over the age of 50 suffering from severe loneliness in England will increase to more than 1 million in the next 15 years”. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/oct/13/men-face-future-loneliness-problems
Loneliness doesn’t only affect those who live alone; you can be lonely in a crowd, but also in the context of a relationship. I guess Janet had become increasingly isolated, partly due to the shame of what was happening in her marriage and of her (mistaken, but understandable) self-perceived blame in how she was handling things. She was a desperate woman and that’s seen so clearly in the way she responds to this overt display of affection from Mrs Petifer – she becomes ‘convulsed by sobs’. I just love how the older lady covers her and holds her until her sobbing subsides.
Sometimes that’s just all we are called to do. Offer a hug, some warmth and our nonjudgmental, but comforting silence. So, to finish, a second question – who would turn to us in their hour of need?
 Eliot, George, Janet’s Repentance, in Scenes of a Clerical Life, first published 1857 (Penguin Classics)