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How and why Sunderland fans must unite to help tackle hunger and homelessness this Christmas

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Sunderland fans know more than most the value of hope. The value of food and cold, hard cash in a cold, hard world is well enough known - but hope is precious, and sacred in its own fashion. Hope will keep a soul alive.

Sunderland v Rotherham - Sky Bet League One Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

“Though seeing, they do not see;

though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”

- Matthew 13:13

Yet bear it we must.

The number of children living in poverty is truly sobering. According to the data compiled by the charitable watchdog endchildpoverty.org.uk, figures have been steadily rising in a trend that can only be described as cataclysmic.

The truth is there for you to see. I doubt that there is a man or woman alive today that hasn’t turned their face from the harsh contrasts of our society; that hasn’t walked past a homeless person, or seen a person that looked vulnerable, but that they dared not try to help because of fear, ignorance or prejudice.

There are a great many people that have walked by and will continue to walk by, never seeing. Sometimes because they choose not to see, because seeing is harder than looking away. Because seeing is realising that the fabric of our society wears thin at the seams, and will wear thinner still for as long as ignore it. That is a great burden for any person to bear and the average person will go to great lengths - sometimes unwittingly - to avoid that burden.

I don’t say these things to condemn any man or woman, and certainly no more than I would condemn myself. I say them because they’re unavoidably true and I have to believe that we are all given a great responsibility to shoulder that burden of society. That responsibility is at the core of our very existence - something without which we wouldn’t even comprehend the notions of community or fellowship.

As I write this, the reception for Roker Report’s Christmas Goodwill Fund has, frankly, shocked us. Staggered and humbled are words that don’t come close to describing the honour done to those in need, by those who are giving. Giving your time, your surplus clothes, food, and a few quid that would otherwise go in one end and out the other is a holy endeavour if ever I’ve imagined one. Truly it is.

Sunderland fans know more than most the value of hope. The value of food and cold, hard cash in a cold, hard world is well enough known - but hope is precious, and sacred in its own fashion. Hope will keep a soul alive.

Hunger and cold are things we think we understand. Hunger, though, to most people you know, is that pang you get between brunch and dinner. Depending on where you are at the time and what you’re doing, you might take lunch or have a snack to appease this bare hint of an early physiological warning to maybe chow down at some point soon, in some fashion.

Cold is how you feel when you step out with too few layers because you maybe underestimated the temperature. It’s the dodge between warmed spaces during a busy day. It’s the moments before the heating kicks in on a morning, or the few breaths butt-nekked after a hot shower, between the shower and the towel rack.

That isn’t hunger. That isn’t cold.

True hunger is feeling almost too sick to eat. Headaches, cramps, incontinence. These are the symptoms of hunger for those without food - and clean water isn’t exactly flowing on every street corner, let’s not forget. True cold is scrounging for lighters so you can warm the pitifully few parts of your skin that you haven’t managed to wrap in anything you can find. Homeless people die on the streets of Britain in 2019.

Homeless people struggle to survive as we speak.

For all that we wish to believe we live in a fair and reasoned society that supports all citizens in their human right of dignity and basic means of life, it tragically is not so. We can bemoan this until the world is finally set to rights, but here and now we must do something greater than feel pity or even lay blame. Here and now is where we must stand to support the valiant, kind people that brave the cold nights and do what it takes to make the simple - grand - difference between a cold night alone, or a hot meal and a fellow to chat to. Something to ease the godforsaken weight of the least fortunate among us.

My father was a good man; a complex and kindly man with a rich tapestry of flaws. A member of the armed forces, a miner, a hod-carrier, all before his 30th year. He was homeless at 35. A product of the fierce war-time generation before him, he collected enemies as readily as friends, and had plenty of both in equal measure.

I am reminded of him now as we discuss our society and the state of it. He passed away 10 months ago, sick, poor, vulnerable and neglected by the state he had contributed to his entire life. Made redundant from his job of 15 years, his health declined and he was cast into a world he’d broken his body for the last two decades to ensure that neither he nor his family ever descended into again. One of his biggest fears towards the end was that he couldn’t afford his TV license, and every thinly-veiled threatening letter from the TV licensing company would increase his worry at a time when his worries should have been lifted from him by the society he had spent his life believing would do so - that we are all taught to believe will do so.

Back on the breadline - I remember it well. It was only his untimely death that prevented the very real threat of homelessness that comes hand in hand with poverty. Perhaps one of his most standout qualities was an inherent gift for survival, and it’s one he shared with the thousands upon thousands of lost souls that wander through the bitter cold with no promise of shelter, no promise of sustenance - no assurance of anything.

I was fortunate enough to learn how to survive at the feet of this man - and they were harsh lessons, lessons I will never forget. I have learned a great deal about the human condition in my relatively short time on this earth and this is perhaps one of the reasons this lies heavily on me, as I feel it should on all of us.

Its all a bit grim, I know. Please, trust me when I say that this is a mere reflection of the weight on my heart, as we are all forced to face yet another day in which our supposedly mighty, wealthy and assuredly privileged society endures the shame of knowing that millions of its people are at risk of an undignified and wholly avoidable death.

It’s easy to feel alone because it’s so easy to find yourself alone. There isn’t always a helping hand there, nor a reassuring touch. There won’t always be times in your life where you control everything that happens to you and around you. Life is brimming with variables.

Life can be - is - chaos. Everything can change in a heartbeat and everything you know can fall away, in the end to be left only with your soul bared to the world. Many, many innocent people have fallen prey to this inevitable symptom of our society.

There is no shame in being victim to chaos.

Places like the Sunderland Soup Kitchen are fighting a war. People like Andrea and her little legion of stalwarts are manning the front lines, and the war wages unabated no matter how hard they fight. They’re the salt of the earth.

The cause of homelessness is surmountable, as a piece of string is long. The cure for poverty exists, very much so, but the responsibility for applying that cure is in the hands of a seemingly callous few.

Until the government of the day recognises this sickness there will be no cavalry.

Instead, turning that tide requires people like me and you to stand with Andrea, with her team of dedicated volunteers, and with the volunteers of every soup kitchen and food bank, in Sunderland and beyond.

Donating to this, the best of causes; to the warmth and safety of a fellow human being at a time of abject crisis, is how we stand together. This is how we fight back against the tide of despair that can engulf the lives of vulnerable children, women and men at a time when they should feel the same warmth and peace that we all strive for in the festive months.

Perhaps that is part of the reason we celebrate the most gleeful holiday of our calendar in the darkest of months, when the nights grow monstrously long, and bitterly cold - because the hard nights remind us how fortunate we are to be able to cling to it in comfort and security, as we do.

So to those who have already given so much to help those that so sorely need it, I extend thanks from the bottom of my heart and I’m sure I speak for all the lads at Roker Report that have been driving this.

To those that read this and wonder if they can help, it will be needed not just in the run up to Christmas but beyond. Everything you do makes the light brighter for those who need it to find their way. A new year looms and with it we have a chance to make a difference, even for only one more person for one more day.