Heather Staff introduces Jelena Vilotijevic's story of her experience on the Webber Street Sleepout.
Homelessness: we face it every day if we choose to see it or choose to acknowledge it.
For myself it is Old Street Tube station. Sometimes I stop and say hello, ask if I can help, find out what their names are. Sometimes it’s simply too much and I find myself walking by while praying silent prayers, trying to think of a policy to solve the crisis. In my mind I think: this could be me… It really seemed outrageous to me that hardly anything was mentioned in the recent budget around homelessness, and it shames me that this is a crisis of our times. Wrapped up with the housing crisis, universal credit, food banks, mental health crisis, family crisis, armed forces cuts, job losses, is the crisis of homelessness that we are seeing. The real kick in the teeth? The in-work poverty. Just walk around Kings Cross to see those with no home going to work, simply coming back at the end of the day to make a bed in the station.
Recently my friend Jelena from Montenegro has come to the UK to work as a ministry trainee for a year. After being shocked by what she was seeing in London, she decided to do something unusual. She decided to do a sleep out for London City Mission (LCM) and raise some money for the charity. While doing so, she was able to learn more about one of life’s most valuable attributes, that of empathy.
This is her story of the night she laid under the stars and the change that took place inside her as a result. The story may not lead to Government policy change but I hope it reminds us how God sees each and every one of us and teaches us to love our neighbour.
Dark and chilly it is outside. We can barely recognize each other over the few meters distance. We are trying to be quiet because we’ve been told to not disturb the neighbourhood. We chatted for a bit and then it got so quiet. Like everyone is asleep. I couldn’t fall asleep. Not that something was wrong, I was warm, I chose good and thick cardboard, sleeping bag, but as usual, I struggled to sleep. I then saw some people watching us from the closest buildings. At least 10 people were at their windows, I guess it was strange for them to see close to 30 people “camping” in the dark and cold London night in the park. I noticed one guy who was at his open window, smoking and just in two seconds he disappeared. After a minute or so, he came back, but now he talked on the phone. Maybe he talks to his friends, sharing what is going on. Or his girlfriend? I was a witness to the shutting down of all the lights on that building. I closed my eyes, started to count sheep like when I was child, so I could fall asleep. 56, 57… Lights… rotation… no, I am not asleep, still. I see a police car on the gate of the park, talking with the Security and one of the representatives of LCM Webber Street. They left soon after they checked we were not using drugs, that LCM had insurance and that we had permission to be there.
I continued to count the sheep, 58, 59, 60….. 110… I hear voices getting closer. Group of voices… Drunk, loud voices! Smashed bottle! Another one! 4, 5… bottles, not sheep. A group of young men were going back from the pub and saw us and they started to mock, yell and soon they left… strangely, I am not scared. I am warm in my bag, calm, they just were too loud. There was a fence between them and me, and 50 meters of the ground, Security guys are there, I remembered. Well, that explains why I am not scared. What if I was alone, with no fence and guardian on the gate of the park? Unfortunately, this is what a homeless person can experience daily. That someone shouts at them, mocks them, or kicks them, spits at their face, or something even worse. And who is there to protect them? To guard them, their fear, protect their heart?
In the morning after we had gone into the LCM centre we had breakfast, and then I left to get the tube. I still had my hat and my sleeping bag in my hands. My shoes were dirty due to the rain and mud on my way out from the park and I noticed a few people looking at me and then they turned their face from me. I realized, just because I had dirty shoes, bag and oldest clothes I had in my wardrobe, I looked homeless. And I was ok with that but not by the fact that people couldn’t look at me, they felt so sorry for me. I was dehumanized just by the fact I look homeless. I could imagine how it is for them, I mean, I do that myself. I walked past so many times these people and just because of the pain in my heart seeing them like that, I couldn’t look at their eyes. And there can be so many other reasons why we all would do the same: blaming them, judging them, thinking they are drunk, drugged, who knows what.
It then hit me.. I will never be the same; I was safe in that park! Around me were people who were trying to do the same thing like me. While I was sleeping someone took care of me and made sure I was dry as much as they could. I had a house to go back to. I had friends who texted me, supported me, my family to make sure I am safe and back home. Who do they have to do that for them? Nobody hit me, spat on me, urinated on me, like what happens to them… And I went to teach kids in the church, had lunch with some friends, I laughed on the end of that day!
It took me two weeks to process. The other day I walked out from the restaurant after the breakfast and I saw one guy, in his sleeping bag next to the door. I looked at him (after two weeks I finally got courage to do so), smiled at him, bowed down and asked him if he ate. He said he did. I offered to get him coffee. Yes, people, they love coffee as much as us. They know that taste, at least I hope some of them remember it. After he got his coffee I asked him if he knows about Webber Street, and tried to explain to him how he can find it. I was looking in his eyes. I saw warmth, I saw thankfulness. Not for the coffee, not for the potential place to get food and shower from time to time, but for the fact someone spoke to him, someone cared, someone took a minute or so and behaved with him as he is human, not animal or as I was doing just a few weeks ago, hide my face from those like him. He was thankful that I didn’t make him feel like he has no value. Because he does! He is created in God's image, as I am, as you are. He is fearfully and wonderfully made. Christ died for him too! God loves him the same like he loves me, us! The fact we are in better position is just making the point. We are not called to assume and guess the reasons they end up there, judge. We are called, required and expected to go to them, reach out to them and treat them with all respect and love.
You can find out more about Webber Street at http://webberstreet.org/
Interested in doing a Sleepout too? Find out more here.
With thanks to Jelena Vilotijevic for sharing her story. Jelena comes from Niksic, Montenegro where she works with the Evangelical Union of Students in Montenegro and is in the UK for a year studying and working as a ministry trainee.
This article originally appeared on the Christians On The Left website.