Niemöller’s WarningPosted: January 5, 2014
This past Christmas was hard because I have a happy and supportive family.
This past Christmas was hard because I saw the happiness of homeless people.
This past Christmas was hard because, when all was done, I turned homeless people back out onto the street.
This past Christmas was hard because I lost my good CPAP machine.
This past Christmas was hard because straight afterwards I started a new and well-paying job.
This past Christmas was hard because we were planning a wedding.
Some of the above, most of the above, should be positives in my life. Not unmitigated positives, new jobs and weddings are undoubtedly stressful events, but they mark progression – they mark the growth of wonderful things. They are positives, huge positives, but when set side by side with my experiences working with Crisis over Christmas to help rough sleepers in London these positives become hard to deal with. These positives, when set against the suffering, victimisation and demonization of others become hard to reconcile mentally. The fact that my life is going well makes the gulf between me and a group of people, some of whom I would like to call friends, that much harder to reconcile. I am taking that difficult but liberating leap into flight as they are trapped and held down against a cold and hostile earth.
One way to resolve this is to forget them. To take the road that most choose to take and fail to see them asleep in doorways or begging in the street. To pretend that they are criminals or drug addicts who brought their own misfortunes down upon themselves. To fool myself that they could not be me and I could not be them. I won’t ignore them, I couldn’t even if I chose because I have met some of their representatives and I know they are people like me. Some are nice, some nasty; some intelligent, others slow; many are sick or have turned to alcohol to try and cope with their situation – but less have become addicts or alcoholics than you think. Many have mental health problems, vulnerable people are easy for the system to side-line – the mentally ill often don’t know how to fight back. Many do not have mental health problems when they first go out onto the street, the environment provides them; they can then be used to ignore the afflicted individual.
This year one of our guests (that is our homeless guests to whom we gave a bed) was an English teacher – a very erudite man who gave us a talk on what the work of Crisis meant to him and the other homeless people he knew. That talk meant a great deal to me at the end of the final shift, the shift in which we have to take the people we have helped and turn many of them back onto the street, the shift at the end of which you are more emotionally and physically tired than any other. I don’t remember his exact words but I think I can paraphrase an extract here:
“The quality of volunteers at Crisis has not changed. You still give hope to people through food, shelter and, perhaps more importantly, through conversation and little things such as opening doors for your guests and treating them like human beings – an experience that is rare on the streets.
“The calibre of volunteers has not changed, but the calibre of guests has. This year the centre has had one professor, two doctors and several teachers – all homeless. There are more of what society calls skilled people, people who you would not have seen in the past.”
I can add to his comments that we had at least one person homeless because they could not work – on the waiting list for an operation (and so not someone an employer would take on with major time-off looming) and another who was a barely controlled diabetic. A third had a crippling heart condition. Our speaker did not venture an opinion on why our homeless guests suddenly seemed more educated, more professional. Why they were from areas of the workforce that have traditionally been ‘safe’ or why people who were so sick had been left homeless and rough sleeping. He did not venture an opinion on why all our centres (more were opened this year than last) were swamped by numbers never seen before. I can venture my opinion:
We have seen a massive spike in the numbers of homeless people in the last few years as the coalition government has implemented austerity measures. Crisis loans for the disabled have effectively been removed (they were moved under local council control but no funding was transferred to pay them). ATOS, the government’s private medical assessor, has been ruling disabled people fit for work against their specialist’s direct recommendations and thus taking away the benefits of people who cannot in reality hold a job. Job centres have become incrementally harsher in applying penalties to job seekers in the case of minor infringements (such as missing a meeting due to a sick child, the flare up of a severe disability or to attend a last minute interview for a job). With DLA/PIP, ESA and many others being removed or slashed in real terms or placed behind a bureaucratic wall that takes months, and a huge emotional investment, to penetrate more and more people – skilled or otherwise – are finding themselves abandoned by the systems they have been funding for decades through taxation.
So, my life is doing well, but as I watch the gap between myself and the people that I have met opening ever wider my heart is filled with a deep impenetrable sadness. I see a void, a gap that our current austerity blinkered society refuses to see, expanding and start to swallow people that it could never reach in the past. I see a void looming behind friends who have not seen its growth or, instead, stubbornly deny that it could ever reach out to them. I have met people better qualified than them or I, people who had better jobs and better prospects who have been swallowed whole and deposited on the streets. I see a shadow at the edges of this void and I fear what is coming.
I have met homeless teachers, doctors, market traders, professors, literary critics, chef’s, cooks, musicians, labourers, civil servants, taxi drivers and businessmen. They have been a mixture of healthy, sick, disabled, desperate, hopeful, determined, broken and unbreakable. To cope they have stayed sober, gotten drunk or high, denied reality or faced a nihilistic world with grim resolve. They have been people like you and for some of these readers they will be you, one day in the future.
That void is opening up below you and unless we all open our eyes and work to close it down some of you will be swallowed by it, as might I.
There was a famous statement made by Pastor Niemöller with regard to the cowardice of German intellectuals in the face of Nazism. You have probably heard the official version:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.”
There are other versions, one of the first written included these lines:
“Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. – I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it’s right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn’t it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]? — Only then did the church as such take note. Then we started talking, until our voices were again silenced in public. Can we say, we aren’t guilty/responsible? The persecution of the Jews, the way we treated the occupied countries, or the things in Greece, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia or in Holland, that were written in the newspapers”
I do not claim we are facing a holocaust, but we are facing the deaths of people because politicians have decided that those who are a burden to society, the incurably sick or disabled, are no longer worth supporting. We are seeing a rise in homelessness amongst our educators, a sign that their moral and intellectual guidance is being devalued. We are once again adopting the creed that an individual that does not contribute monetarily does not deserve the basic rights afforded to all humans. The last holocaust began with the gassing of the mentally ill in specially modified vans because society deemed they were a burden. Be alert and speak out when once again we are shown that these people are not cared for by the state. Place Niemöller’s statement into your mind every day and speak out now, it is too late to speak when the void has swallowed you.