I've been pondering this story for a couple of days. It's been a bit stressful in our shelter but we had a good meeting with a senior council official on Wednesday - a pin-prick of light in a dark few days. I then read this story in the Guardian which reminded why I do this and keep shouting about the needs of those we serve through our little project.Then I got an email telling the story I am about to relate.
It concerns a guest of our shelter last year. He was a difficult person but had the prospect of getting his life together after a career as an alcoholic. The email I got was in response to a request for information as to his whereabouts. It told me he was back in prison, due to be released soonish, but he would get no support from the probation service because his sentence wasn't long enough, he'd get no support from the drug and alcohol service because they'd tried once, and the social worker who sent me the email was in the throes of securing an injunction to stop him returning to the one place that might give him sanctuary.
I confess I heard the sound of running water as I read it and pictured people queueing to wash their hands of this man.
Now the social worker might think he's doing the right thing in obtaining the injunction; the relationship between our former guest and the person said social worker is trying to protect is complicated and messy.But I wonder what the prospects are of a man coming out of prison with an alcohol problem, who hasn't worked for quite a long time and has nowhere to live.
It set me thinking about how the safety net we think exists for people like this is in tatters. Lots of hard-pressed people are trying to hold the line in a system that is chronically underfunded and under-staffed. But more than that, a system that is under-appreciated by tax payers - that's us. When I tell stories like this to members of my congregation they are deeply shocked that there is no help available for my friend. However low someone has fallen, there is a feeling that they should be helped to get back on their feet.
This man is someone's son, someone's brother, our neighbour, part of the community in which we live. Yet he's invisible to most of us and will probably be back in prison before the year's end, having committed a more serious offence because the only place offering bed and board is HMP wherever.
What's to be done?