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Saturday 12 October 2013

Reflections on charity from social housing

It was the first night I slept in a social housing estate.  I remember the suspicion of empty grey concrete in the early morning night , CCTV glassed in my face, a tumble weed of litter by the blue metal entrance door.  An excited woman pushed me past security into a creaking lift that seemed to sigh with our weight. 'It's punk', she said, her fist punching the air as my eyes betrayed  a reaction to the faint smell of urine and sweat, lives hotch-potched together. My love affair had begun.

From the balcony window you could follow the butterfly drug runs of kids on bicycles in the autumn evening glow.  The same faces that hold open the door for you with a polite hello. I quickly became just another person in the block.  Among the shapes flitting past security, you'd wonder, is she the one I heard screaming last night? Are they the couple who have sex one  week, then try to kill each other the next? The flats inside are emotional prisons, inhabitants left alone to solve hand-outs of pain, people hooded under stereotypes like the man in the iron mask.  A mirror back to a system that is dependent on its underclass, not the other way around.  We must remain sick, so they can continue to treat us as fools.

'Do you see the old man walking around the block  each night?' my host asked me.  I looked at the hunched figure, bent into the wind with a stick for survival, led by his panting dog. 'He's lived here since the place was built. I dreamed I will be like that one day, old and alone, still here. We all do.' 

 I couldn't understand why anyone stayed. Surely everyone could see the trap, a better world to free themselves to? One of my host's friends tried to explain: 'only someone who has never lived in this world would ever think you could possibly give up the only possession that gave you somewhere to live after years of just surviving to get by.'  There was a different type of education here.  A free school of disenfranchised experience. 

Slowly, I felt my aspirations diminished. The cramped conditions, the vomit in the lift shaft, they erode your goals; yet at the same time, the community that is born from being outside the mainstream makes you feel that this is a better, more real, authentic world.  I gave up all my goods that couldn't fit into a bag. I detached myself from the materialism of my society; I became a spy in the City after a night of concrete meditation. Most of all, I began to suspect that the world of charities and entrepreneurs  had never and would never go anywhere near this place.  The people living here were numbers to be used to sell brands; showcase lives, demos of issues, beta-tests for other people to build their careers on.  Or at least that's how it felt at times.

On the train from work, I noticed someone had graffitied the latest Centrepoint poster. They had scratched out the 'Centre' and replaced it with 'No'.  The only experience anyone had here of Centrepoint, Prince's Trust, Action for Children, were just posters asking for money.   'Charity's a bad gang,' a local kid told me, hanging out with his friends. 'They like it when we riot; they love it when we hurt; they feed on our lives, ain't it? They enjoy us being this. But they don't share profit'  Then his mobile lit up with a text and they were gone.

No point.  I couldn't have said it any better.  I only wish I had. The reality gap between all the meetings and plans and thoughts and strategies of today's youth charities, and the lives of those they have no real experience of, grows ever deeper.  Tucked up in swanky offices and comfy homes, exchanging issues over supper clubs and expensive conferences, what hope can there be that anyone will find a different way of thinking?  It's like the social housing estate. The council management, which has spent no money on maintaining a building, ends up with a budget to be spent on pruning the roses, while people struggle to cope with the squalid conditions inside their crumbling homes. 

As I watched my neighbours shuffle away, I was left thinking, has charity lost its moral purpose? Where is the fire in its belly? Where is the risk taking, the leadership, the call to arms?  The passion, the urgency?   Has charity lost its community with the issues it is meant to solve? Has it become too focused on courting the shillings that distorts whatever vision it may have once had to do and give? Like Faustus, we slowly become souls sold to the devil of contracts and donors, using systems of evidence that are ever more distanced from the lives they represent. We work within organisational structures that repeat the exact same values and behaviours  that  are responsible for the social issues we pride ourselves on seeking to solve. We are just different gangs, with more expensive graffiti.

I discuss this with a local called Dimitri as he kicks back in the sofa, smoking a roll-up while trying to cuddle a purring tabby cat with one eye. He talks excitedly about his childhood, how he got taken out of school, put into low paid work to support his parents (a story often repeated round here), and now, years later, he is in a dead-end back on the estate.  One of our 'NEETs' as he pointedly jokes with me.  'I once phoned the charity for help, but unless you fit what they are looking for, well, you know, they can't do a thing.  Maybe I don't belong to that tribe. We're a different class here. We're  a different code.'

'What code is that?' I ask.

He shrugged his shoulders, sucking in an ash of thoughts and memories. 'Whatever you are not.'

I was shown the door with a friendly slap on the back, but not before Dimitri offered me a final word of wisdom: 'There is more charity and community in dealing drugs than half the shit that goes on in your world. Start ups, digital media, million pound projects - it's turning you into selfish Neanderthals.'

Listening to Dimitri reminded me of the lyrics from one of my favourite Lou Reed songs, pointing the finger to the corrupt morals of an 'uptown' establishment . I just hope it isn't us; that we are not too late to save and show charity's responsibility; that we aren't the social pioneers for humanity's ice age...

 'We sat around the other night, me and the guys
Trying to find the right word
That would best fit and describe
You people like that
That no principle has touched, no principle's baptized
How about that?
Who'd eat shit and say it tasted good
If there was some money in it for them
You're just dirt
That's all you're worth cheap, cheap dirt
You know they call it
Cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, uptown dirt'

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