The last resort for those whom society shuns, the Mission is a haven for everyone from ex-junkies to aesthetes
‘SEE if it wisnae for this place?” says Trisha. “I’d probably be dead the noo.” Trisha is 36 with long blonde hair and pale blue eyes.
She is about double the weight she was two years ago, when she was a ghost in the grip of a drug addiction. Now, she takes methadone, the heroin substitute, eats regular meals, and stays away from the narcotic temptations of the streets – all of which is made possible by her attendance, most days, at the Lodging House Mission.
The Lodging House Mission is at 35 East Campbell Street in the Calton. It is a 19th century Italianate church building which would once have been grand but is now rather faded. You’ll find it between the Barrowland Ballroom and the abandoned Bell Street hostel. Shortly before 8am, when the Mission opens, there are already a few men sitting on the steps outside, woolly hats pulled low, wanting in out the cold for breakfast. This is one of the three big charity centres – the old-fashioned term would be “soup kitchen” – offering shelter and nourishment to Glasgow’s homeless and vulnerable. “At the height of the great depression we served 34,000 lunches a year, and last year we served 32,000,” says the manager Neil Watton. “So that tells its own story.”
Stories are the one thing people here have in abundance. Everyone has a tale to tell. The man who escaped from a PoW camp in Italy. The guy who stabbed his father with a potato peeler, and, stealing a dead man’s identity, fled abroad. Soon, hearing all this, you are immersed in drama and sadness. Alex, a 47-year-old in a baseball cap, recalls that when he and his elder brother were both kids, just six and seven, an old wall fell on them while they were out playing. His brother threw himself on top of Alex, saving his life and losing his own. The family flitted from Maryhill to Easterhouse, trying to escape the bad memories, but you feel that Alex has never quite been able to get away. He does not keep well, and has been homeless, and though he now has a tenancy in Broomhill, he still comes to the Mission four days a week because the alternative – “sitting in the house, demented” – does not appeal. He comes for the company.
There is a strong sense that this is a community, even a kind of family, made up of people who, very often, feel they have been rejected by wider society and their own kin. The main hall is large and bright with striplights. A tapestry at the far end says, “Lord, let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of thy word”. A menu penned on a whiteboard offers mince and tatties for 75p, sponge and custard for 35p. Soup, tea and coffee are free. People – mostly men – sit on plastic chairs at wooden tables. Some sit alone and read the paper or keep their eyes on their plates. Others play cards or chat. It is noisy, busy and upbeat, a social club for the socially excluded.
Though food is the draw, this is much more than a soup kitchen. Classes are offered in a wide range of subjects including art and literacy. Attempts are made to get people into college and work. Fourteen people from the Mission, including Trisha, sang at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden as part of the Olympics festival. The idea, with all of this, is to build structure back into lives which, for a long time, have had none. Not everyone can be saved, of course. The Mission memorial book is full of short tributes to short lives; the words “suddenly” and “untimely” occur again and again. This old man drank himself to death; this young man shot up heroin contaminated with anthrax.
Few who use this place call it the Mission. It is known as Trotter’s, after John Trotter, who was chaplain between 1958 and 1977. The street has a long memory. The main hall smells strongly of cooking and vaguely of disinfectant. Some of the younger men have the blank, heavy-lidded eyes that indicate they have scored heroin or valium.
Most folk appear peaceful enough, but you can’t always tell by appearance. One small, gaunt man in his sixties comes through the door in a suit, tie and neat tan overcoat. This is him back after a three-month sentence for assaulting a member of staff. He’s always on the wind-up, calling the younger guys junkies, picking fights like picking scabs. “He’s awright when he’s sober,” says Neil Watton, “but see if he has a couple of drinks? Bedlam.”
Not everyone conforms to intoxicated type. Take Kit. He doesn’t seem to care for the word homeless, preferring to call himself a pilgrim. A Christian and an aesthete, he can often be found upstairs playing Chopin’s piano works to the empty pews, playing from an old green-bound book of scores he bought second-hand for a pound. Kit is 46, originally from the north of Thailand. He has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, but struggled to find work. He was raised as a Buddhist but had a conversion experience while reading Les Misérables high in a tower block in Manchester while suffering from disappointment in love. He found himself weeping on his knees. Since then he has walked everywhere – the Pennine Way, the West Highland Way, across Glasgow every day, glorying God as he walks. He is living in a hostel and teaching himself Hebrew, Sanskrit and Ancient Greek. The Mission is far from his home. “This is also home,” he says.
The Mission is the busiest place of its sort in the city, and most likely the busiest in Scotland. They get about 150 people coming through the door every day, up from 100 just a couple of years ago. There are thought to be around 7,000 homeless people in Glasgow, around a fifth of the total Scottish number. Government statistics show that the numbers of homeless are falling, and yet the Lodging Mission House and other similar places are all experiencing sharp rises in demand as the recession bites. The needy are getting needier and there are more of them all the time.
Homelessness manifests itself differently now in Glasgow from how it was just a few years ago. The big council-run hostels have all closed, and, though there are private hostels, the city authorities prefer to move people into housing authority flats. But rough-sleeping, out on the streets, still happens and is still dangerous. One man recalls being asked for a cigarette and, on refusing, being slashed through the tendons of his hand; on another occasion, the same man, while dozing drunk in the train station at Carntyne, was bitten on the fingers by a rat and the poison spread up to his armpit.
So many stories. Randolph alone could write a book. He is 76, an owlish teetotaller wearing a woollen sweater-vest spotted with blue paint. He speaks good English with a strong East European accent, but was in born in Rangoon. When the Japanese attacked Burma, his family moved first to Arizona, and then to Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, where he grew up among Russian expats, anti-communists who had fled Stalin and who passed around samizdat copies of Tolstoy, Gogol, Lermontov and Pushkin.
In 1953, Randolph went on the road. He travelled across Europe – “a gentleman of independent means” – doing odd jobs, sometimes begging, spending his nights in churches and hostels, his days in libraries, reading law, economics and philosophy. He did this for decades. It was a wanderlust, but also a lust for silence and exile. He wanted to be alone. Eventually, in the Nineties, he moved to Britain. He was getting old. He needed a steady place to eat and sleep. “I could either go to monastery or to madhouse or to prison,” he said.
The monastery was out as he didn’t fancy all the praying. The madhouse was out because he would have no freedom at all. So he settled on prison. He would have to commit a crime. But which crime? Something serious enough to merit a longish sentence, but not so serious that he would spend the rest of his life in there.
“So,” he says, delighted, “I make a bank robbery.”
He held up American Express on Princes Street but made no attempt to escape, pled guilty, and spent two years in Shotts prison, at the end of which time he felt much fitter and in better mental health than before.
On release, Randolph settled in Glasgow, in a homeless hostel in Dennistoun, but now lives in retirement housing in Bearsden. He comes to East Campbell Street most days, finds it comforting and feels like the people here are his family, even though he doesn’t talk to them much, preferring to sit by one of the large arched windows and paint bright exterior views of the Mission. The lines of perspective are remarkably straight given his trembling hands.
The Mission, it seems to me, is a remarkable place, a great untapped resource of anecdote and character and rough humour. On my way out, I nip into the gents, and there’s an old fella in there, bunneted at the urinal, singing Rothesay Bay.
“It must be sumbdy’s pay-day,” comes a wry voice from a closed cubicle.
“Everyday’s a pay-day for me, son,” says the old man. “All ah need’s the sunshine.”
“Aye,” says the voice, “but there’s precious f***in’ little of that n’aw.”
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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