Anna Burnside: Hope in a place of destitution

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A DISUSED church in Glasgow offers shelter and sustenance 
to penniless refugees, finds Anna Burnside

TOM Coles is surveying dinner ingredients. These are arranged along the front pew of a Glasgow church: a case of organic yoghurt, a plastic sack of dubious bananas, five large bags of rocket, two boxes of heritage potatoes, milk, yellow peppers, courgettes which could be kindly described as mature. He contemplates various combinations without enthusiasm. The chefs of Ready Steady Cook would have difficulty making this random selection into an enticing menu.

Willem from South Africa lies down for the night at the entrance to the vestry. Picture: Robert Perry

Willem from South Africa lies down for the night at the entrance to the vestry. Picture: Robert Perry

Coles, 26, is a volunteer at the Glasgow Destitution Network’s night shelter. He spends one night a week preparing a hot dinner for the eight to ten people who sleep on the floor of the church hall every night. After the meal he folds up the tables, washes up and bunks down in a sleeping bag beside them, before getting up and ­going to his day job as a postman.

As the preparation of root vegetables commences in the church’s cramped kitchen the second volunteer, 24-year-old Nadine Stott, arrives. It’s just after 8pm, when the shelter ­officially opens to “guests”. Hassan, a lugubrious Algerian chef, has already offered his services at the stove. Next door Willem, a 51-year-old South ­African, is setting up his bedding in the corridor that leads to the vestry and putting on his slippers. “It’s my biggest comfort at night,” he says. “Taking my shoes off.”

This night shelter is for destitute asylum seekers and refugees. Some have exhausted the application process, others are stuck in a cashless, accommodation-less limbo until their application can start. Their individual circumstances vary. What they all have in common is that they are not allowed to work, receive no benefits and have nowhere to live. Organisations directly or indirectly funded by the government, such as council-run hostels and emergency shelters, cannot give them a bed. Destitute well describes their situation.

The rules of entry, set out in a notice on the front door, make it clear that this safety net is only for those who have slipped through every other safety net. “This shelter provides temporary emergency accommodation for people who are not entitled to any other shelter or hostel in Glasgow. If you are entitled to receive financial help from the Job Centre or Glasgow City Council we are sorry, but you cannot use this shelter.”

The Destitution Centre on Great Western Road. Picture: Robert Perry

The Destitution Centre on Great Western Road. Picture: Robert Perry

The Glasgow Destitution Network, made up of the Refugee Council, Red Cross, the charity Unity as well as various church and integration groups, started the service last winter in a building borrowed from Glasgow City Mission. They knew there was a demand. Phil Jones of Unity says: “Michael, who has been destitute for three years, was staying with drug addicts, begging for money to stay in their house. Another guy was sleeping in the back of an abandoned transit van in Govanhill. Young mothers would get the lift to the top of a tower block, make a nest in the stairwell with boxes and blankets and sleep there with their babies.” What they didn’t know was how many destitute asylum seekers there were. Nobody does, although Morag Gillespie from Strathclyde University recorded 148 destitute people, including 18 children and five pregnant women, in a recent study for the Scottish Poverty Information Unit.

They moved to the west end in April. The church charges no rent and most of the food is either donated or collected from Blochairn fruit and vegetable market. Jones estimates that running costs for providing a daily hot meal, breakfast and packed lunch for ten or so people, at £100 a week.

There is a quiet room, where most guests sleep, and the TV room which also houses the fridge, doubles as the dining room and can become the women-only dorm if there are female guests or volunteers. The swirly carpet is loud enough to keep anyone awake. Add a kitchen, two toilets – there are no showers or baths – and that’s it. The church, which is no longer used for worship, is full of camping mattresses, sleeping bags and on-the-turn dairy products. (Volunteers call it “the cupboard”.) Upstairs rooms are used for choir practice, drumming groups and pilates classes.

The guests make the best of it all, charging their mobile phones, helping themselves to vitamin-enriched smoothies. Willem, who has had a triple heart bypass, and suffered a heart attack in the shelter earlier in the year, finds the quiet room “too hot”. He has claimed a little cubby hole as his own. It is an improvement, he says, on sleeping in his car. A young Tamil couple colonise a corner of the quiet room, making up their bed, laying out their slippers and toiletries. Brian, a 22-year-old from Gambia, prefers the couch. He stretches out, listening to the World Service on his headphones. He has been coming to the shelter for three and a half months. “Otherwise I would be sleeping in the street.”

Michael, from Zimbabwe, is one of the shelter’s original two guests. Charming, courteous, ironed to within an inch of his life, he was in Scotland on a business trip when his secretary phoned to warn him not to come back. “She told me the office had been ransacked, that they were looking for me,” he says. “It was well known that I sponsored my cousin in the MDC [the anti-Mugabe Movement for Democratic Change]. So I’m stuck here.”

He is waiting for the result of a judicial appeal into his asylum application. Until then he is studying business at Stow College, volunteering at Unity, keeping in touch with his friends in Maryhill, where he once had a flat. It is not easy without money. “At college the other students buy tea, coffee, juice, even water,” he says. “Me, I have a dry mouth.”

At 10pm, dinner is served. Not everyone joins the table: the Tamils prepare their own highly spiced food, Willem eats earlier in the evening. But for those who do sit down there is roast parsnips and purple ­potatoes with rosemary, roast courgette and yellow pepper, tomato sauce, reheated rice, lettuce and rocket, the best of the bananas and a finer cheeseboard than many restaurants. Besides a hefty cube of cheddar sits a wedge of Brie de Meaux, Fontina and Appleby Cheshire. The latter three, donated by Whole Foods Market in Giffnock, are typical of the expensive goods that, having failed to find an affluent buyer, arrive on the plates of the destitute.

Or would arrive on their plates, if they enjoyed ripe washed rind cheeses. “The thing about having loads of posh yoghurts is that people don’t want to eat them every day,” says Coles. “Some of the volunteers are students and they appreciate the treats. But the guests don’t want Brie de Meaux. They want a good solid meal to keep them going.”

Mo, an Algerian, tries a ­sliver of Fontina. His face crumples in distaste and he reaches for the cheddar. What the guests really like, says Stott, are eggs, which can be hard-boiled and slipped in their pockets for lunch, and chicken. Hassan pines for couscous and North African spices. Many guests are Muslim, so everything must be ­Halal. Volunteers tend to be vegetarian or vegan and they eat, as well as cooking, the food. The result is a mix and match selection of decadent gourmet treats and student flat stodge.

It’s a functional meal: most guests jump up from the table, take their dishes through to the kitchen and disappear as soon as they have eaten. As they assemble their beds from sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses, Hassan, who has put on his coat but changed heavy boots for flip-flops, stays chatting to Sarah Leonard, an artist who is drawing pastel portraits of everyone at the shelter. He then joins the exodus on to the front step for a cigarette. Bedtime is 11pm.

Seven male guests, the Tamil woman and Coles slot themselves into the quiet room. Stott and another woman have the TV room – and humming fridge –to themselves. Stott is resigned to a fitful night and has brought David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years to pass the small hours.

By 9.30am, Coles and most of the guests have left. Brian prepares some Weetabix while Stott makes tea. Breakfast is a DIY job, and guests can take supplies to see them through the day. Most grab a banana or make a sandwich. The Tamils, however, fill a Tupperware box with last night’s curry, a familiar meal to break up a dreary day in the library. “I’ll use their PC,” says the young man, “watch a movie, see some news about Sri Lanka. It’s boring doing the same things every day.”

Brian heads off to use the internet at Pollokshaws Integration Network, optimistic that, one day, he will be able to prove to the Home Office that he will be tortured if he returns to Gambia. Nadine locks up and cycles home for a shower, clean clothes and a quiet day. The guests will surf the internet, doze in the ­library and count the hours until they can return and take their shoes off once again. «

www.stopdestitution.org.uk