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#SoupKitchen23: What happens to the lost?

Why do we want to support Sunderland Community Soup Kitchen each year? Well, for some of us the realities of poverty and homelessness are close to home.

Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

It’s the time of year we gather to help our friends at SCSK continue their invaluable and life saving work, but it’s another year where the crisis that drives the need for people like Andrea and the team, and so many other kitchens, food banks and local charities up and down the country, is once again highlighted through the increase in numbers of people who need help and who can’t get it anywhere else.

I’m not going to preach to you about politics or politicians, or the collective failures of past and present governments to address the core issues at play. I’m not going to go into the many conflicts raging not just around the globe but within our society, and to be perfectly honest with you I couldn’t really give two fucks about culture wars or trying to force one ideology or another on anyone. I’m simply going to tell you just why this fundraiser is so important to me, and why I personally feel the need to help SCSK specifically.

I keep saying the same phrase over and over again - This is our reality - and I’ve found myself wondering what this means to others... what is our reality?

Now a lot of the things Andrea tells me I find triggering. Given my background, many of the stories of the people who she helps are all too familiar and it reinforces my determination to help.

As a society of individuals our reality is subjective but as we’re a product of our upbringings and our communities, our public discourse and commonalities condition us to think and behave a certain way. We have similar goals to one another in that we often (though not always) want a family, want a stable job, want a home of our own and all the creature comforts and security these things bring, in our minds anyway. I’m oversimplifying it but you get what I mean.

I’m the direct result of a kind of loneliness and desperation that placed my homeless parents in the same place at the same time, seeking comfort and escaping their harsh reality at the time, and here I am. A child of the damned you might say, as both parents were undoubtedly damaged and lost.

In short, my childhood was filled with despair, anxiety, violence, abuse, and above all things, loneliness. It’s this feeling that I find myself struggling with. It’s not loneliness as a result of a lack of friends or family, my house is packed with people, and it’s not the sort of loneliness that can be remedied by the presence or even love of others. It’s something in my experience that children feel when they’re powerless, they just don’t know how to define powerlessness, but that’s what it boils down to.

You don’t feel part of the world, you feel apart from it. Your existence is all-consuming and impossible to escape from, you feel the weight of it at all times as an adult but there are moments where ignorance and imagination can combine in a child’s mind to create a less harsh reality, a refuge for them to play in and dream. Where everyone is happy and nobody is sad and everything can be fixed with a spell or an act of kindness or a hero can come along to save them. They themselves could be that hero, as in this imaginary world of theirs anything is possible and the future is limitless.

But this innocent mirage of endless possibilities is repeatedly broken by a feeling of hunger, a dull pain in your stomach as your growing body groans for fuel. You need to wait though, as if you’re old enough - maybe 4 or 5 - you know that food has to last and you don’t have much of it. Like the feeling of cold, the sort of cold you might feel putting your hand on a radiator that can only run for a few hours a night if that. It doesn’t matter that it’s winter, and you wear your jumpers and sometimes a coat in your bedroom, wrapped in your covers because this is what you’ve been told you need to do. You might not know if anyone else has to do this, your mam or dad don’t want you to say anything about it so you don’t. It’s your reality, it’s all you know.

Again it’s this I keep focusing on, it’s something I feel whenever I see a child suffering or even looking mildly upset. I can’t look away from any of it.

It haunts me and it has done for decades, this ghost of Christmas past. The feeling of not knowing if you’d have presents to open like other children because one year you might and another you might not, not because Santa put you on the naughty list but because your very own Santa is starving themselves to keep you fed and almost warm, they look sad and you don’t really understand why. You don’t want them to be sad, you don’t know that this is just their reality, you’re a child who loves unconditionally and without judgement. You just want everyone to be happy because then things can be magical again, your mam or dad can laugh with you or at you without that look you can’t define; without this feeling you can’t explain that smothers everything around you and reduces the world to shades of grey and moments of pure fear and anxiety, of hunger and cold.

Like Andrea, my thoughts aren’t solely on the children and their struggling parents, as you can be as lost as a child at any age. You’re just more acutely aware of ‘your reality’ and how it got to where you find yourself.

About 15 years ago a woman moved in with a lad she’d known for years. He was a bit older but she didn’t mind, he’d always been kind to her and they got on well, had a laugh all the time and all was well. One morning as she was getting ready doing her hair, he stormed into the room without warning and hit her in the side of the head with his fist, knocking her back, then pulled a heavy wooden drawer out of her dresser and used it to beat her senseless. Leaving her unconscious, bloody and injured. Waking up in pain and confused, she didn’t know what to do. He’d taken her phone and was waiting downstairs. Had she done something wrong? She must’ve done something wrong. In a state of shock she took herself to the hospital for treatment, saying she’d fallen down the stairs. To this day she doesn’t know why she didn’t tell anyone, though it was no doubt obvious to the medical professionals treating her. Life somehow moved on, but she was very careful not to annoy this lad, they’d been getting on so much better after a month or so; her cuts and bruises had faded, her fractures had healed and he’d been so lovely despite not giving an explanation for what had happened. It must’ve been something she’d done, but she wouldn’t do it again.

She was cleaning when he came in from work, when he hit her again without warning. But he didn’t stop at a beating this time, this time he decided to truly violate her. He brutalised her, he raped her. She screamed and struggled but she was tiny and he wasn’t. She didn’t understand what she’d done wrong, why he’d done that to her? He said she deserved it. It was all she was.

This time she ran. Not that she needed any other reason but a few years prior to this her friend had been murdered, chopped up and burned in a bin on a local green by her partner. Something in her head realised this could be her reality soon.

But in doing so, in rushing to escape it all, she found herself even more vulnerable; her life chaotically spiralled and it resulted in her sleeping outside. She often reflects on the fact that at least she had a car, that despite not being able to run the engine and keep the heating on she still had some safety locked in there through harsh winter nights. The scarring on her lungs and the health problems it caused that still plague her today are arguably better than what might’ve happened without that small freezing shelter of metal and glass.

This woman is the love of my life, and I’ve barely left her side for nine years, such is my determination to make her feel cared for and loved. I have spent all those years telling her that nothing that happened to her (and there is unfortunately far worse in her past) was her fault, she didn’t deserve it, nobody does.

This is who I see when I hear similar stories from Andrea. I see those I’ve known and loved who have suffered, I feel their pain and anguish and I just want to help them. I know what it feels like to be the child who doesn’t know why things are the way they are, who doesn’t know why their stomach hurts and why it’s so cold. I know it isn’t their fault. I know the struggles of their parents, many of whom themselves had the same innocence robbing childhood, who get caught up in a spiral of pain and misery. Those who work hard to try and keep that innocence and magic, however fragile, alive as they try to keep their children alive.

Nobody deserves to suffer and in a just world and a just society nobody would, but there is no utopia coming anytime soon. The world is a cold and dark place but people like Andrea and the team at SCSK help those who for whatever reason find themselves feeling alone in a crowd, teetering on the edge of their own sanity, trying to survive their own reality.

I can’t tell you their stories, that’s something only they can do, and nothing we do as a collective will ever be enough. We simply will not be able to help everyone.

But fuck me, we can try.


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