‘It’s not about you’

Calais diary part 1

Just back from two weeks at Maria Skobtsova House, my head is still ringing with the Taize songs we sang three times a day for Advent, and the sounds of conversations in French, that I half understood, and the conversation in Dutch, Tigrinya, Amharic that I didn’t understand at all.

I still have in my head the mezmur, [hymns] the young guests at Maria Skobtsova House sung every evening at night prayer. Sung in low voices, the hymns begin as a kind of soft hum, then increase in intensity. One young man shouts out the words which others pick up in canon. One drummer taps gently to start with, then there’s a barely detectable crescendo, until everyone is swaying and clapping. Even though I’m tired and looking forward to bed, I find it impossible not to join in the complicated clapping and swaying pattern.

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The chapel at Maria Skobtsova House; blankets folded and ready for use at evening Orthodox prayer

Each day we meet at Maria Skobtsova House for prayers at 8:00. There’s supposed to be silence until then, but with seventeen young men in one family sized house, I suspect there’s been plenty going on in the night. After prayers and breakfast, it’s washing the floor, picking out the recycling, cleaning the one toilet, sweeping the stairs, sorting the washing. If you’re not quick enough with the floor the young men are already in the kitchen and making breakfast. Outside in the yard is a rack of freezing trainers, with crispy socks. There is a fridge. There’s a lean-to with an outsize washing machine and extra supplies of tins.

There’s a corner the boys have made into a barber shop. S. is the barber. He says he has been a barber since he was a child, even in Sudan, en route. Getting a new hair cut is a chief pastime. To get the desired effect he takes the blade out of a disposable razor, holds it against the teeth of a comb. J. also likes to hang out in the yard, behind a curtain rigged up between a shower cubicle, not yet in use, and the fridge for extra privacy.

I sleep in an empty apartment, in an old house by the canal. There is a chapel, a kitchen, a bedroom and study and a shower. Every morning I walk quickly to be at Maria Skobtsova House in time for morning prayer. We sing hymns, recite psalms and listen to a prose passage from lives of the saints or written by a saint, morning, noon and evening. At night there is another prayer with the guests.

I get to drive the community’s van home so I can bring back the donated patisserie in the morning: loaves of bread and miniature croissants, pain au raisin, pain au chocolat. Piles of donated food and clothes gradually build up along the walls of the corridor. Visitors from England bring cereal, tea bags, fresh milk. This afternoon, a group comes with a van of donations from Tower Hamlets. One of the girls has never left the U.K. before. Fresh fruit and vegetables are scarce, except for a wholesalers van that comes twice a week. When it’s my turn to receive the delivery I choose the vegetables I crave, like radishes. But of course it’s not about me. When I offer the radishes to the young men, one eats it politely but another one makes comedy show of spitting it into his hand, grimacing. We take the grapes and clementines.

Everyday there is a delivery of stew from the Refugee Community Kitchen, in a large oblong tin. One end of a warehouse has been turned into a commercial sized kitchen. Volunteers, dressed in black chefs shirts and caps, chop vegetables to the sound of heavy techno. I looked enviously at the crates of pumpkins and cabbages, which lead me to wonder why, by the time it reaches us, the food isn’t all that nice. The smell follows me around on my skin.

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Refugees are sleeping out in this

Today it’s raining very hard. Rain is making rivers along the pavement. We run more errands, to the hospital, back to the kitchen to return the empty pans, to LIDLS. Rain is bouncing off the tarmac surface of the LIDLs carpark. Under Br Johannes’ direction, we stock up on milk, eggs, sugar, diet coke. Although there is a cooked meal every night, these are the staples of the house larder.

Another essential is ‘berberis’ , a large jar filled with a mixture of chilli, paprika and curry powder that comes out every night. Guests in small groups cook themselves tomato sauce mixed with ‘berberis’ heated in the microwave, eaten by dipping pieces of bread into the shared bowl.

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Communal Eritrean dish made of grilled flour, spicy tomato sauce and yoghurt

On the way back from LIDLS we see many refugees at the ‘Belgian parking’ for that is its name, gathering to try and get on the lorries. With the deteriorating weather, it seems that people are ever more desperate to ‘try’. When I get home I read this article in the Huffington Post: people are afraid more than anything of dying of cold.

Each evening, in twos and three, the refugee guests come home, having been outside all day ‘trying’. ‘No chance’ they say. Some prefer to stay out all night. Some prefer the morning.

Almost sooner than I’ve learnt all the boys’ names, I have learnt a bit about their favourite characteristics and foibles. One likes to sit outside. One is the barber of the group. One speaks very good English. One prefers French. One has an infection in his foot and we have to take him to the hospital everyday. Often they come back from ‘trying’ with injuries, cut hands, sore backs. I heard about a broken hip, a broken foot. A few have given up going out.

In the evening there are missing empty places at the dinner table. There is a gloomy and nervous atmosphere. Br Johannes won’t start the meal until all are present. No one is allowed to stay in bed. J. who usually sits by himself in a corner to eat, today joins us. He says in English ‘maybe they’re in Engerland, but they’re asleep’ then continues in his own language, causing everyone to laugh. Even his face makes them all laugh.

Yesterday two come home with cut hands, saying a lorry driver attacked them with an iron bar. The soaking coats and hoodies, hats, gloves, all go into the wash and then the drier, sometimes they say the coats have been tear gassed, so need to be washed. The drier is on at least 12 hours a day, filling up with water and fluff from the soaking wet towels and coats, hoodies, scarves and hats.

The smell in the yard could be tear gas or it could be the rotting food. I look up smell of tear gas on my phone. It’s difficult to tell.

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Refugees try to keep warm round a fire under one of the city’s bridges

 

 

 

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‘It’s not about you’

What has gentrification ever done for us?

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Pray and Work: Ora et Labora woodcut by Ade Bethune, 1935, Ade Bethune Collection, St Catherine

Just down the road from Giuseppe Conlon House in Hackney, in the same borough as the London Catholic Worker’s weekly soup kitchen, Urban Table, there is an unmistakable whiff of gentrification about the place, with all the changes going on.

Some might call it regeneration, others gentrification, others social cleansing even. The Catholic Worker would call it clarification. Dorothy Day writes, in Loaves and Fishes [1], ‘Poverty is a strange and elusive thing [..] We need always to be thinking and writing about it, for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.’

There is plenty to laugh about how bad things were in the bad old days: an infrequent train service and a bus that only went half its route on Sundays. Before mobile phones, in the early nineties, my street was a sort of crack superstore; customers would stand in a row, staring in the direction of the high street, looking out for the dealer’s gold BMW.

Improved transport links, street furniture, cycle routes, regular rubbish collections, decent schools, more restaurants and cafes to choose from; the benefits of gentrification are obvious. Above all, an expansion in housing and therefore population. What’s not to like.

However there is also a housing crisis. House prices have risen out of the reach of most. Young people and those on low incomes have to rely on renting from private landlords, who can then charge as much as they like. Private rents in London are now 72% of income. Meanwhile anyone who is homeless, even if they are housed in the area, the minute they get a job and lose their housing benefit they won’t be able to afford the rent. The message of gentrification is: if you can’t afford to live here, move out.

I was looking around for an alternative proposition, perhaps an anarchist view on the situation. One housing expert friend suggested that, short of a riot, the way to bring house prices down was for all the school children to fails their GCSEs. Another warned, ‘Laws will be broken’. A mass squat.

Then I found ‘Hope and Rage’, an experimental series of six discussions on gentrification. Rob Schellert, the facilitator, told me he set up the group after feeling angry and frustrated at the evangelical churches’ response to the changes in his neighbourhood. He feels church Christianity has nothing to say about the real life issues present. The church he said just tends to be about ‘spiritual stuff’ and offered no discipleship. It offers only a superficial response to what it means to love our neighbour.

The sessions covered transport, shopping, socializing, education, and included an expert speaker, information from local government sources, and a scripture passage. As a group, we put our comfort filled domestic lives, under scrutiny, from a radical Christian perspective.

My first task was to speak to local people about their experience of gentrification in Hackney, so I combined this with setting up a justice and peace group in my parish. One parishioner I spoke to said he was moving; Dalston was too noisy and he had found a larger place in Enfield. He lived in the estate next door and we found much in common. The ‘hope’ part of ‘Hope and Rage’ was already working.

One evening the group took the 242 bus from Dalston to Homerton. When we set off the night time economy of Dalston was just getting started. Commuters were flowing out of its two stations. By the time we reached the far side of Hackney, the Nye Bevan estate, most passengers had already got off, and the road was poorly lit. The 242 bus is the only immediate transport.

For the session on ‘shopping’ Simon Jones, a Baptist minister and financial expert, told us about the small shops, barbers restaurants and businesses that have sprung up in the refugee camp at Calais. Whatever happens people always have a little money for a hair cut or a shave, preferably at a barber’s shop specific to their own ethnic origins.

That week we also read the Parable of the Talents, Matthew 25. We discussed how the common expectation is that even if you have just a little, you should put it to earning capital. How many feel good stories do we hear about people who have risen from humble beginnings. The parable ends, after ‘there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth,’ with:

‘to those who have
will be given more
and to those that have not,
even the little they have will be taken away.’

Nowhere has this prophecy been more fulfilled than in Hackney, in the housing crisis and in particular in the private rental market. More and more people have to rent privately, with no hope of a council house or owning their own home. Where rents remain unregulated, private landlords, and those who own property, can only get richer. Those on low wages lose a disproportionate amount of their income to the landlord, effectively buying his property for him. In addition they are in danger of losing their home through ‘no fault’ evictions. Their situation becomes precarious, leading to anxiety, stress and ill health, the ‘gnashing of teeth’.(2)

Rob Schellert believes social cleansing is already happening. In a place such as Hackney, which used to be one of the most diverse boroughs, it would be a ‘tragedy’ if through gentrification that diversity was lost. Both at my local church and Urban Table, the weekly soup kitchen, I meet elderly people who seem to have been abandoned. Twenty years ago perhaps, their families chose to leave the old Hackney, of drugs and gang violence, for somewhere leafier or somewhere more affordable. The ones left behind are the elderly, the sick or the very poor.

‘What little they had’, their community, is being taken away. As gentrification as we enjoy the advantages, we can easily lose sight of those who are losing out.

The conversations on domestic matters, shopping, transport, made me think long and hard. I felt resistant at times – who cares if I take a bike or catch a bus? But this in itself reminded me of my own responsibility, the times I have thoughtlessly taken more than my fair share. It’s so easy for us to enjoy the benefits, thank you very much, without considering our relations to others and our neighbours. Even Radio 4’s Money Box Live recently ran an item on how parents giving their grown-up children money contributes to rent hikes and therefore the housing crisis.

Living in a family or community, I grow to understand the pitfalls of taking more than my share. If I take too long in the shower, I’m stopping my son from getting ready for work. If I extend this to my own neighbourhood, my shower, the one I am taking too long in, is someone else’s shower, the one I am taking from the poor. My house is the one I am taking from the poor. I am like the rich young man in Mark 10, turning away disheartened.

Hope and Rage, Rob says, is about recognising how our actions, whether consciously or not, affect others around us. Together we grow in awareness of how we relate to our real neighbours through shopping, education, transport. We persevere in sharing our experiences, until we see there is no right or wrong answer. The group is a place of encouragement to commit to something, to try new habits.

Dorothy Day writes, ‘But maybe no one can be told about poverty; maybe they will have to experience it; Or maybe it is a grace which they must pray for. [..] I am convinced that it is the grace we most need in this age of crisis.’

1 Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, Loaves and Fishes, Orbis Books, 1963
2 Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj, The Rent Trap: how we fell into it and how we get out of it, Pluto Press, 2016

This article was first published in the London Catholic Worker newsletter and is produced with permission

What has gentrification ever done for us?