Saturday, 10 May 2014

Excellent Article on the BHT Shipping Containers Fiasco

Courtesy of Vice

So, how did artist Charlie Devus come to call a 40-foot metal shipping container home? “In this place, we’re all God’s polyps.

All of us flow according to the tides,” he explains, as he gives me a guided tour of his new abode. The process began when Brighton Housing Trust, a local housing charity, found him a flat that had been flipped straight out of an Irvine Welsh novel.

“I couldn’t stay there. There was this giant hole just pouring water down through the ceiling. It was just insane – and I had to leave, quickly,” he shudders. So, a few months later, while construction was still being carried out on a new flagship housing project, Brighton Housing Trust suggested he move in and try it out.

Along with its stony beach and gigantic seagulls, Brighton has another defining factor: It’s home to one of the biggest homeless populations on the South Coast.

For full article click here.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Alcohol, Street Drinking and the Rise of the New Puritans

We often take it for granted that an age and society that fosters moral relativism and that promotes hedonism will lay few, if any, curbs, restrictions or moral codes upon others.

Debates that surround the issues of same-sex marriage, abortion and assisted suicide readily deny, despite sound reasoning that points to the opposite, the real societal impact of such lifestyle choices upon others, preferring to enshrine personal freedom as paramount in the public sphere. The sanctity of life and marriage is thus sacrificed for a new sanctity – that of personal choice. Those who oppose the new ‘freedoms’ of the age are vilified as intolerant, narrow minded bigots.

Diversity, Equality and Discrimination

Bizarrely, however, the new found ‘freedoms’ of the modern age do not extend to everybody. Even in an age of moral relativism, in which everybody has their own truths, certain lifestyles, which for many are grounded in addiction and illness, are still singled out for their effect on the public square.

Recently, while walking down a street in Brighton, I came across a sign in a newsagent doorway that read, ‘The Sale of Alcohol to Street Drinkers is not Permitted on these Premises – The Management’. It so happens that street drinkers have been on the end of near constant attention from the police and PCSOs in Brighton. Doubtless the authorities have their own reasons for doing so, so as not to put off the tourists, to curb antisocial behaviour, to keep the city ‘safe’. However, reading the sign I could not help but think what authorities are saying is somewhat discriminatory, prejudiced and insulting.

What is a ‘street drinker’?

What is a ‘street drinker’ might sound like a question with an obvious answer. It is someone who drinks alcohol on the street. One might ask whether, however, a couple sitting in a park in Brighton drinking champagne are ‘street drinkers’ and whether these persons would be refused champagne once word got around to newsagents to, ‘Watch out for the guy who drinks champers in parks with his wife.’ The word ‘street drinker’ seems to have other connotations of the poverty and misery of the outcast, denoting a ‘tramp’ like existence. These people, I assume – a certain ‘type’ of drinker - who cannot afford to drink in pubs, clubs and bars, but who drinks cans outside, is the real target. It would be too simplistic to say that this message from Brighton newsagents was of the ‘No Irish, Blacks or Dogs’ variety, because this kind of outlawed ethnic (and canine) discrimination was more clear cut. The term ‘street drinker’ is more subjective, a little more ambiguous and left very much to the arbitrary opinion of the newsagent who is being encouraged to think of a client base which is ‘out sort’ and a kind of customer who is ‘not our sort at all’.

Refusal register
The age of peculiar double standards

Our age, it appears, is to be the age of acute double-standards. For instance, what would the reaction be if, say, a wedding cake maker put a sign up today in his shop window saying that wedding cakes will not be available to same-sex couples who wish for such for their celebration?

Doubtless there would be an outcry, even a clamour for the delicatessen to be closed down by the vociferous LGBT community, especially in Brighton, even though the owner was acting in accordance with his sacred conscience. Where is the political movement for the rights of alcoholics, street drinkers and homeless people? Of course, it does not really exist, because these people either have no voice in the public sphere or are deemed unworthy of having a voice. Of course, one may reply, each shopkeeper has his own right to sell what he chooses to each and every customer as they come, as they appear and I could agree with that principle. It is one that I would say extends to the B&B owner who does not want homosexual activity in his establishment.

Yet, here in Brighton at least, it would appear that this is not the whole story. The decision by newsagents not to sell alcohol to street drinkers is one that has been made with the local authority in what appears to be a city wide action that singles out street drinkers for rejection, enforcing the idea that all are ‘equal’ before the law, but some are less equal than others. The initiative also has the striking effect of reinforcing the notion that somehow, because someone is homeless, poor, or alcoholic, that they are to be treated as pariahs or, at least, second-class citizens.

Local authority Initiative

As the pictures suggest, this is a Council initiative, to which various newsagents and retailers have signed up, we must assume, voluntarily. Other councils around the United Kingdom are doing similar, therefore one has to wonder whether what we are witnessing here is a national targeting of the homeless and street drinkers to be refused alcohol, dressed in the cloak of combating ‘anti-social behaviour’.

In an age that raises personal freedom to new heights of protection – even to the cost of society itself in terms of the common good, the personal rights of many who wield no power or influence in society are at the same time disregarded. I would personally defend any newsagent or barman from refusing an alcoholic more alcohol on the premise that he or she believes the alcoholic has had too much to drink and therefore should not be served. Yet this initiative does not appear to be objective but entirely arbitrary, depending not necessarily upon the drunkenness of the individual being served, but perhaps appearance only – on the basis that this person is a ‘street drinker’.

It goes without saying that alcoholism in general is a huge problem in the United Kingdom and that the social evils associated with alcoholism, in terms of domestic violence, family break up, marital difficulties and other issues are prevalent. Yet the ‘refusal register’ of Brighton and Hove City Council does not apply a single, objective or reasonable law to all citizens, but is obviously applied to the homeless, the poor and those living either in hostels or on the street. It goes without saying that for the chronic alcoholic, deprivation of alcohol can lead to fits, palpitations and other medical symptoms that most of us would find to be most distressing.

Wikipedia alone notes that ‘the withdrawal syndrome is largely a hyper-excitable response of the central nervous system to lack of alcohol. Symptoms typical of withdrawal include agitation, seizures, and delirium tremens.’ Ironically, the Brighton newsagents in which I took photographs is on a road in Brighton which is about to open new accommodation for 350 students. University students, for all of their academic gifts, are well known for ‘living it up’ and, from my own university days, I can attest that ‘the best days of your life’ are, for many a student, not days, evenings and weekends of careful sobriety. It appears that in Brighton, though not just Brighton, one law will apply to the drunkards who are homeless, poor or who live in hostels, but, I suspect, another law will apply to those who Brighton and Hove City Council believe will benefit the local economy and who come from more privileged and protected backgrounds.

New student accommodation being built on London Road
 Are ‘rights’ only for the wealthy?

As Brighton welcomes its first same-sex marriage, the defenders of this new law will say that marriage’s redefinition is grounded in the human rights of the individual to exercise personal freedom for the sake of love. How ironic, that in the same time such draconian discrimination will simultaneously be applied to the poor and homeless, many of whom will say they just need a drink because they have ‘the shakes’.

The laws that govern the public sphere in modern Britain often appear to be grounded in language and logic that at first sounds just and fair, but end up being entirely arbitrary, imposed on the populace from above and applied in a totalitarian manner. Catholics shouldn’t be quick to jump on a campaign for drunkenness in public spaces, but we should condemn the unjust discrimination against the poor whose only crime in the eyes of the authorities, it would appear, is not to be just ‘too drunk’, but not rich, socially mobile, or just not respectable enough and, in a city like Brighton, where hedonism and personal freedom are raised to the secular altar, that an initiative like this should be in operation aimed chiefly at the homeless is surely nothing short of scandalous.

Human nature is wounded and while redeemed, we are frail, fragile and fallen creatures. We need grace in order to overcome our vices. One suspects that the puritans of ages past were not at all times quite so pure as they led others to believe. Here in Brighton – and perhaps in your town or city too – we are witnessing not only the rise of anti-social behaviour, but the unstoppable rise of the powerful and certainly aggressive and certainly dogmatic, new puritans.

We should ask why the poor, the defenceless, the voiceless, the homeless should be made to be the scapegoats for the sins of so, so many. Are Brighton’s homeless and its ‘street drinkers’ take consolation in the fact that while the local authority considers them unworthy of being able to buy a drink in a newsagent or off-licence, they are free to get married to someone of the same gender. Is it time Brightonians asked ourselves exactly what criteria makes some drinkers better drinkers than other drinkers, because, let’s face it, we all like a drop and it’s not always in moderation. Brighton is known for many things, but moderation is hardly one of them.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Banned from West Pier Project

I have incurred the displeasure of a homeless hostel in Brighton, from which I have been banned.

Brighton's mysterious West Pier, after which the hostel is named
West Pier Project, a Council ran temporary emergency housing establishment in the heart of the city centre, has, I am informed in person by the staff on the reception, barred me from entry, following their discovery of the above video which I filmed of a friend who lives in the hostel explaining living conditions and the astonishing rental fee charged by the West Pier Project for his living there.

I asked them whether it was illegal for me to film an interview with a friend in his room and they maintained that it was, so it looks like I'll need a lawyer. Having been told I was no longer welcome to visit my friend Daryl, who let's face it, doesn't receive many visitors as things stand, because I had basically exposed something the West Pier would rather not be brought to light (quite what that is, I was not told) I had time only to wish Daryl happy birthday and give him his birthday present, birthday card and a bit of cash for some tobacco.

Among those who wish people to be silenced in today's society are those who exploit the misery and destitution of the poor for personal gain, who extort from the poor exhorbitant housing benefit charges in rent in order to fill their pockets and live in luxury, since, I was told by a worker that the building is privately owned and we can therefore safely assume that the rental money of nearly £200 a week goes to the owner. They don't seem to do much to improve the building. Only a week or two ago another man I know there tried to open a window and had to go to hospital because a window pane fell out and sliced his hand open. The staff kindly paid for a taxi, but you should have seen the guy's hand. It was a total mess. I told him he should sue.

I asked the staff member who the owner of the property was, but was not given a name. The team member denied knowledge of such information. Perhaps the staff do not know who owns the property. You can bet Brighton and Hove City Council, however, do!

Pope Francis calls us to serve the poor and to highlight and expose the injustices that take place in their regard.

Just for the record, here is another picture I took of the inside of West Pier Project. I know this is a general sign that warns that there is some dangerously strong heroin 'out there' in big, bad Brighton, but for an establishment that serves its residents a needle exchange service and whose residents number many a heroin addict, perhaps telling everyone that there is some 'seriously strong s**t' available in Brighton, and telling them what colour and texture it takes, maybe isn't that great an idea?

After all, they all know the next hit could kill them, but many of them are just out for the best hit they can get.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

An Interview with a Resident at West Pier Project

An interview with a man called Daryl, on life at the West Pier Project, Brighton.

For £180 a week rent, I am sure there are better places on the market.

I wonder who the private owner of the West Pier Project building is?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

BHT's Sea Containers to Open Amid Turmoil At Olympus House

Brighton's hostels system: A veritable 'merry go-round'
There has been much hype concerning the shipping containers that now adorn the New England Quarter of Brighton. The project has won media attention in both local and national outlets and much positive publicity has been generated for Brighton Housing Trust (BHT), but is there more to this story than at first meets the eye?

Upheaval and relocation for residents of Olympus House

Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) claim responsibility for Olympus House, on 80-81 Marine Parade. This accommodation is set to close, only to re-open again as a hostel specifically for mental health patients under the care of the local authority. According to the receptionist working at Olympus House, the hostel will still be run by BHT, but it will become a ‘half-way house’ for those leaving mental health hospitals in the region.

Quite what this means in the long-term for current residents we have no idea, but the short term outlook for some residents of Olympus House has been placed into utter confusion. A significant number are to be placed in the new 'shipping containers' or 'sea containers' placed in the New England quarter of Brighton. Some are being promised accommodation in Eastbourne, some in Brighton and one couple, nothing, leaving a proportion of tenants confused.

The current residents of Olympus House have received notification to quit by January 2014. Some have been told where they will be re-housed, but one couple have not. They were told this only a month or two ago but for how long BHT and the Council has known of its refurbishment and morphing into a 'half-way house' for those leaving mental health facilities is as yet unknown.

Olympus House, Brighton
Olympus House tenant expresses anxiety over re-housing

The Eye of a Needle spoke with residents at Olympus House in order to find out more about the plans to shut and re-open under a new remit, with new tenants, along with a planned refurbishment of their not particularly pleasant interior, in order to house those leaving mental care facilities as a 'half-way house' before they are moved to more permanent residences.

'We've been living here for over two years,' said one resident. 'They've told us that we have to leave in January, but they won't tell us where we will be placed. I've got mental health problems. Not knowing where I will live is doing my head in. Wouldn't it do your head in?'

The Eye of a Needle can tell you in truth that this woman, ironically, does indeed suffer mental health conditions and that the wait in learning where she will be living after Christmas is having a severely negative impact on her mental health.

The individual has a history of suicide attempts and overdoses as well as the bi-polar mental health condition. This wait in hearing where she will reside after Christmas is not helping her mental health situation. Unfortunately, the Council claim to have dropped their 'duty of care' for her, so she remains in 'limbo', waiting for news to arrive. The couple fear being placed back in Percival Terrace or 17-19 Grand Parade.

Coincidence: BHT is advertising for new tenants for the 'sea containers' in Olympus House

Meanwhile, having made a visit to the premises, I can confirm that there is an advertisement - a poster in the hallway of Olympus House for those residents who wish to apply to live in a shipping container on the site where 'The Cobblers Thumb' pub used to stand.This is unusual, given that the narrative being given the general public in Brighton is that BHT have acquired shipping containers in an effort to ease the homelessness problems in Brighton. Through both local and national media, the charity have acquired a great deal of publicity for their initiative to house the homeless.

BHT's new shipping containers arrive 'co-incidentally' in time for the closure and re-opening of Olympus House
This picture above belongs to Brighton Housing Trust. The BBC confirms that BHT are the organisers of the shipping containers idea and, indeed, so do BHT themselves. So the organisation makes no secret of their involvement in the project. And yet, to this day, news that Olympus House is to close and current residents are to be evicted from the building in January has yet to hit Brighton's streets despite it being announced to residents over two months ago. Why?

Why has the closure of Olympus House and its re-opening not been announced by BHT?

If Brighton’s good people knew that BHT had generated so much publicity over the ‘sea containers’ while withholding the vital information that they knew they were to close and re-open their own accommodation, then perhaps that recent ‘great publicity’ for 'great publicity' for BHT and QED have been quite so favourable since it may raise suspicions as to the motives for the sea containers in the first place, motives which may well be pure in a set of unrelated coinciding events.

Andy Winters: 'Imaginative' solutions' needed for homelessness
Still, credit where it is due. BHT deserve some good publicity. At least, for example, BHT did not throw the poor of Olympus House onto the streets to the elements of winter and have confirmed that they will be housing a number of these tenants in the 'sea containers' .

Co-incidence, perhaps, is all it is yet, I must confess I find it an incredibly strange co-incidence, given that the closure of Olympus House and its re-opening should coincide nearly perfectly with the arrival of the shipping containers.

To my mind, it raised suspicions that the sea containers could be a temporary solution to a problem in part created by BHT themselves, who have agreed to continue to manage Olympus House as a 'half-way house' in order to accommodate Brighton's mental health patients. Andy Winters of BHT, however, maintains this is coincidental.

Concerning the new shipping containers housing scheme, BHT maintain on their site that...

'This is an exciting moment in this project. We have identified 21 of the first 36 residents and they are being prepared to move into their new homes. The residents will have completed one of BHT’s programme for change and will free up space in other services that will be able to take in men and women who are currently on the streets. There is an acute shortage of affordable accommodation in Brighton and Hove and, in a landlords’ market, particularly for those with a history of homelessness.'

The message makes it sound as if BHT are fulfilling a need, which certainly exists in Brighton, for temporary housing, or 'imaginative' housing options for the homeless of Brighton and those in need of 'affordable accommodation'. Yet, neither BHT, nor any report I have seen so far, has announced the closure of BHT's very own Olympus House. This is strange because it appears the opening of the sea containers is welcome news for BHT, but the closure and re-opening of Olympus House, with its attending evictions, appears not to be considered by BHT or the local press to be news at all. And it is this that is bound to raise suspicions in some quarters.

BHT are, in part, fulfilling a need created by their own decisions in terms of the closure and re-opening of Olympus House in Marine Parade but have not mentioned it to the general public. If Olympus House was not closing to take in new clients under a new remit in mental health care, would the organisation have decided to order sea containers for the homeless? Andy Winters assures us that there is no link between the two events.

A strange turn: BHT advertise the 'sea containers' in Olympus House
According to their own blog on November 8th, 'BHT have identified 33 of the first 36' residents who are to be moved into their 'new homes' (that's shipping containers). How and from where were these 21 residents identified? What proportion of them have come from Olympus House?

An eerie coincidence...

As yet we do not know for certain, yet it seems a strange co-incidence, does it not?

The story that BHT and the Council are putting about is a narrative that suggests they are proactively tackling homelessness and a shortage of accommodation in Brighton for those on a low income or benefits.

When the sea containers open, I will be happy to talk to all the residents to discover where they lived prior to their move to the sea containers.

How much will it cost to live in a shipping container?

£165 per week. That's the truth and it is advertised as such in Olympus House. Yes, Olympus House is advertising the sea containers to those awaiting re-housing by the local authority. This, I think you will agree, is a strange co-incidence.

Like many hostels in Brighton and 'temporary emergency accommodation' solutions in Brighton, Olympus House has been charging Brighton and Hove City Council a similar amount per week in order to house Brighton's vulnerable homeless, those with mental health problems, alcoholism and drug addiction. On top of this, they have been charging residents on average around £10 a week 'top up' fee which they have to pay out of their meagre benefits allowances. Residents are always expressing confusion in relation to exactly what this 'top up fee' is for.

Nevertheless, just because perhaps most residents will be leaving the security of a room in a hostel to live in a shipping container on New England Road, does not mean BHT will not be charging a similar amount in order to live in their 'affordable accommodation'. No, heaven forbid!

Indeed, a poster at BHT's Olympus House tells residents living there who are desperate for just about any accommodation and who do not have the luxury of choice that is open to Brighton's rich exactly how much it will cost to live in a shipping container. Even by Brighton's inflated rental prices, it is a princely sum, I think you will agree.

Would you pay £165 per week to live in one of these?
Of course, your average person would not (and perhaps could not) pay nearly £165.00 a week to live in a shipping container, but then, like so many 'charities' and  temporary emergency accommodation companies, 'the average person' is not what this particular sector seems to be interested in. The truth is that to fall into Brighton's hostels system you have to be on your knees. You have to depend on the mercy of others.

The Homelessness Business

BHT, like so many of Brighton's hostels and 'temporary emergency accommodation' dives are beneficiaries of the public money that comes with housing the homeless, destitute and poor in a town in which affordable accommodation is scarce and in which landlords who accept DSS are so rare as to be virtually non-existent. The fact is that most, if not all of the poor of Brighton are locked out of Brighton's housing market because even if they have enough for a deposit, they cannot offer landlord's a guarantor because they do not have the job and income to do so and don't have rich friends and/or family to back them up.

Sea container 'utopia' as illustrated by an artist: Otherwise known as a slum
Yet, the Council will act as guarantor to those on benefits and some landlords are happy to accept this, but seemingly only in exchange for charging exhorbitant rent to the local authority and, by extension, accept the money of both local and national taxpayers while objectively fleecing both taxpayers and the poor simultaneously. None of this is specific to BHT, and this magazine does not address them in particular. Its just 'the business' it seems, in housing the homeless.

Andy Winters: Questions and Answers

Indeed, BHT have made much PR mileage out of this 'shipping containers' story, especially in publications such as The Daily Mail, in which Andy Winters purrs about the scheme, neglecting to mention that his own organisation is, perhaps, a contributory factor in its sudden urgent requirement.

The Daily Mail article reads thus:

'Andy Winter, chief executive of Brighton Housing Trust, said 'imaginative solutions' were needed to deal with the 'desperate' housing situation in the city.

Andy Winters delights in the good news of the shipping containers for the Brighton homeless community:

'I have to admit that when it was first suggested to me that shipping containers be used for housing I was a bit sceptical. 'However, having seen what can be achieved, I was quickly won over. The WC and shower unit is exactly the same as my daughter had in her student accommodation and she much preferred it to having to share bathrooms and toilets with other students. Who wouldn’t? 'What really excites me about this opportunity is that land that might otherwise lie idle for five years will be brought back into life and used to provide much-needed temporary accommodation for 36 men and women in Brighton and Hove.' 

Yet no public mention of Olympus House's closure then and still not now. Why is that? Had the deal for Olympus House to be turned over to become a 'half-way house' for mental patients not yet been brokered in November 2012, when these quotes were given?

'Mr Winter added: 'This appears to me to be very attractive from a sustainability perspective.' 
'Sustainability perspective', Mr Winters? They are shipping containers for Heaven's sake!

On the 7th November, Mr Winters posted on his BHT blog the following:

'The residents who will be moving in are known to BHT and have a track record of paying the rent, service charge and other bills. We cannot take the risk of having tenants who do not pay their rent.'

Yet why no mention that at least a proportion of the incoming tenants to the shipping containers are known to BHT themselves as residents of BHT's very own Olympus House? A statement from Andy Winters of BHT on his personal blog says:

'The timing of the closure of the Olympus House Project and the opening of Richardson’s Yard are co-incidental.
The Olympus House project is closing for refurbishment works and will reopen in February providing accommodation for 24 men and women with high support needs. The timing of this transition is dictated by a contract awarded to BHT to provide this accommodation.

The opening of Richardson’s Yard was originally planned for the late summer but, because of the demolition of the Cobbler’s Thumb pub (not a consequence of or linked to the Richardson’s Yard development), delayed the arrival of the containers.

I am pleased that some residents of Olympus House will be moving to Richardson’s Yard where they will get self-contained accommodation and of an improved standard.'

Further questions for Mr Winters arise. For example: When was the contract for Olympus House to take in those leaving mental health institutions brokered? And when were was the contract for Richardson's Yard brokered? Exactly what proportion of the new tenants of the sea containers will be coming from Olympus House itself?

On 8th November, Mr Winters, again on his personal blog says of the 33 new residents:

63% are in accommodation proving support, either by BHT or one of our partner organisations. 9% are in emergency accommodation, and 24% are sofa-surfing with family or friends. One is a rough sleeper.

91% are either in paid work (36%), voluntary work (27%), training or education (18%), or in work but currently signed off sick (9%).

In just over two weeks, 100% will have their own front door, their own kitchen, their own bathroom, their own home. 
In other words, according to BHT, 63% of those moving in are in accommodation 'either by BHT or one of our partner organisations' and 63% of these tenants are on benefits. Well, Mr Winters, to my mind that 36% should be in paid work (therefore not on benefits?) is surprising, because, as a cafe assistant, I don't think I could afford to live in a shipping container for £165 a week! Some of these homeless must be big earners!

Still, one couple, among 17 other residents of Olympus House are yet to be housed after their promised eviction from Olympus House. Pray for them all. It is a terrible thing to be at the mercy of Brighton and Hove City Council.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Hearing Voices at Mill View Hospital

Mill View Hospital, Hove
Pray for a friend of mine who has been sectioned. I've known this individual since about 2003. He is a baptised Catholic, despite being unable to drag himself away from the Book of Mormon and retains a stubborn refusal to worship on Sundays.

It turns out he has been there for about five weeks. Like I say, I've known him quite some time and I've often thought he needs proper 'care'. I don't know whether that is something given at Mill View Hospital. The staff seemed relatively indifferent to the patients all in all.

I went to visit him with a friend whose other friend was sectioned two weeks ago. It can't be pleasant being sectioned. When you walk into a mental hospital you imagine that through the opening of the doors, you'll be confronted by something out of a zombie film, or at best 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' but it really isn't that way. They all seem 'normal' people - whatever that is in the modern world. They're normal and of sound enough mind to say things like...

"It's terrible here. The staff don't care."

Yes, I know they are on medication and that 'helps' (to make things easier for the staff). My friend was sectioned having missed his 'depo' injection by a week or two. I am suspicious, but not 'paranoid' about mental health hospitals and even the medication. A little research on the net always reveals how many British Eugenics Society members went into mental health, obviously for 'rewarding careers' - if you enjoy sterilising and lobotomising the mentally ill. Much medication and injections given to schizophrenics co-incidentally makes them infertile or sterile. Because he has been so unwell for such a long time, I am also suspicious of motives for my friend's sudden sectioning. For example, I was told by another patient that my friend was 'in a really bad way' when he came to the hospital, but as long as I have known him he's been having conversations with Jim Morrison and the 'angel kingdom', spending his dole money on day one, leaving him skint for two weeks, hitting his own head in frustration at the voices he hears and developing a 'communicative relationship with my spit'. He is on a 'Section 3' which means he could be there until Christmas, perhaps beyond.

Brighton's most vulnerable are on an accommodation merry-go-round
Despite the severity of his schizophrenia, my friend is perfectly able to hold a 'normal' conversation. He always has done, despite the 'voices'. He can't look after himself, hears voices, takes drugs and doesn't come to Mass, but that really is nearly all of Brighton covered, isn't it?

He tells me how depressed he is, how even to have a cigarette, he has to go to the reception in the ward and ask a nurse to go outside with him to the garden to smoke. He's pale and withdrawn. He talks of his powerlessness in this situation:

"If I had committed a crime, or been sentenced to prison I would understand. Prison would be better than this, because at least then I would know what I have done wrong. Here, I have no freedom, my freedom has been taken from me. I don't understand."

So often, it seems, those professionals in the State's 'care' machine are unable to communicate effectively with those in 'their care'. There seems to be a lack of what Pope Francis calls 'dialogue' or a 'culture of encounter'. The staff are 'trained professionals'. It all seems like a job involving 'observation' and 'assessment' of the patients, but as in hospitals the 'bedside manner' seems to be lacking.

West Pier: Less 'project' and more dumping ground
Of course, I'll happily concede that my friend really does require proper 'care and support' with his condition - even a measure of 'supervision' - but the place is so depressing for him. All he has in his room is a blanket or two.

To add insult to the injury my friend feels (since whatever your condition and the treatment it requires it can never feel right or just to be held against your will in a mental hospital) he has been told that he will lose his flat before he is released and that he will be rehoused at 'West Pier Project', a 'temporary emergency accommodation' hostel in Hove, which is - helpfully for him - full of people with mental health problems, smack and crack addiction and alcohol issues. Nice, eh?  I believe this may well be accommodation owned by Baron Homes Corporation Ltd - Brighton's 'biggest property company'.

He's very confused and very depressed. I'm sure he'll have a simply splendid time in the largely unstaffed 'hostel' where tenants are known for injecting 'bath salts during deadly poke parties'. That was an article by an unscrupulous journalist, by the way.

Pray for my friend and pray too that you never fall into such dependence on the State that you are at its total mercy, since mercy isn't really its abiding quality. On whether he 'deserved' or 'needed' sectioning I'm content to defer to the judgment of trained professionals and experts, but whether my friend should become another victim of Brighton's absurd homeless hostels merry-go-round is another matter. More news on that subject to come in the next few days. It is a little scary to think how much power the State has over the individual in this country and a sobering thought that as society becomes more and more secular, the religious will be considered more different or 'insane' as time goes by.

"No pinky, don't do it!"..."Shut it, Rose!"
Meanwhile, I would really ask the question whether this art student could do with some time in a mental hospital himself - not because he is homosexual, but because he wants to lose his 'virginity' in front of a hundred strong art studio audience and then undergo a 'question and answer' session ("So how was that for you?") from the audience immediately afterwards. Welcome to the new age of 'normal'. It sounds like he needs help, but instead he gets headlines.

Oh and the revellers at Halloween, especially the 'zombies' - they're 'normal' too, aren't they? Despite their condition, which involves great suffering, schizophrenics I have met retain a great dignity, since they never choose the sorrowful and degrading experiences they regularly suffer. The same cannot be said for many in Brighton.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

How The Argus Destroyed the Reputation of a Faithful Priest

St Laurence of Rome distributes alms to the poor
On Thursday 5th September, Bill Gardner of The Argus wrote an astonishing article for the local newspaper that made its way into the national and then international press.  Newspapers that carried his story on Fr Ray Blake of Brighton included the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Times and The Telegraph as well as international news agencies.

The Legend of St Laurence of Rome

Bill Gardener’s article was, unfortunately for Fr Blake, an unscrupulous ‘hit-piece’ characterising the parish priest of St Mary Magdalen Catholic Church as a grim Dickensian villain who hated the poor of Brighton.  A whole month earlier, on August 10th, Fr Blake had penned a post for his personal blog entitled, ‘The Trouble With the Poor’. 

The blog post, to which Bill did not provide a URL link in his article was a meditation on the Feast of St Laurence, the Catholic Saint who, during the persecution against the Roman Church under Valerian, when asked to bring to the Emperor the ‘treasures of the Church of Rome’, brought to him the poor, the sick, the widows and ophans in the Church’s care and declared, “Behold, O emperor, the treasures of the Church of Rome!”

According to the legend of St Laurence, the enraged Valerian had Laurence slowly grilled to death. During his martyrdom, the legend says that Laurence said to his murderers, ‘Turn me over now, since this side is done.’ St Laurence was the focus of the blog post by Fr Blake and it was against this backdrop that his post ‘The Trouble With the Poor’ - especially the homeless - was read by his readership. Of course, you would never know this had you read Bill Gardner’s astonishing character assassination of the Brighton priest whose Church operates one of only two nightly soup runs to the homeless and hungry of Brighton.  It is clear from the priest’s blog post that St Laurence is the focus of his reflection, since the Saint’s gruesome martyrdom is pictured in his piece.

Writing on the Church’s theology, Fr Blake wrote:

‘The Protestant argument was against the pre-reformation Catholic Pelagian practice of salvation through works.  The Catholic conter-reformation argument was against Protestant belief that once you were saved you were saved. Catholics believe the great danger in Protestantism is complacency, having received the ‘blessed assurance’ of Salvation one can relax. The Catholic doctrine is that complacency about salvation is dangerous, hence the counter-reformation and biblical teaching of ‘faith fruitful in good works’.  No ‘assurance’ can guarantee salvation, it is God’s free gift, unknown to us until judgement day.’

The Brighton priest’s August reflection continued:

'The sin of the Pharisees, of the rich man in the story of Dives and Lazarus is complacence. The rich man didn’t even notice the mess that Lazarus created at his front door.  He didn’t respond to it, he needed someone to bring him out of his complacency.’

An international controversy begins...

Fr Blake blesses the bench dedicated to Ann Roberts
It was within both this content and context that Fr Blake’s readership understood the following thoughts on the poor and homeless that Fr Blake ministers to on a near daily basis in his life as a Catholic priest.  Speaking of his experiences as a priest in Brighton, Fr Blake wrote:

‘The trouble with the poor is that they are messy. There is a secluded area between the church and our hall, a passage, occasionally we find someone has got a few cardboard boxes together and has slept there and if it has been raining leaves a sodden blanket, cardboard there to be cleaned up, often it also smells of urine and there is often excrement there and sometimes a used needle or two.

There is a man who comes into the church, especially during the traditional Mass and during the silence of the Canon will pray aloud, “Jesus, I want you to bless Fr Ray and ...., and God, can you persuade the good people here to give to the poor, I am poor”. Unchecked he will take his cap off and have a collection.  It makes a mess of our prayers, it stops some coming to Mass here.  If they are not doing that they are ringing the door bell at every hour of the day and night, and they tell lies. They tell you their Gran is dying in Southampton and they need the train fare, you give it to them and if you don’t find them drunk in the street they are back the next day and the other Gran is dying in Hastings this time.’

Harsh? Or just the honest, real life experiences of ministry in the ‘city by the sea’?  Bear in mind that Fr Blake greets members of Brighton’s homeless community day in, day out, at his door.  Few people in Brighton would suggest that all of Brighton’s homeless community are of either sound mind or are perpetually truthful, yet this does not stop both Fr Blake and his flock loving, feeding and caring for them, more than most in Brighton.

The Martyrdom of St Laurence
The misrepresentation of an honest Priest who had does more than most to help the homeless

Just days after their cruel hit-piece, The Argus itself ran a poll in which 54% of readers said they would like the Council to ban ‘super-strength’ lager being sold in order to curb the ‘anti-social behaviour’ of members of Brighton’s homeless community. Fr Blake,  far from condemning the homeless, was simply reflecting on his experiences as a priest, but honesty can get you into hot water with The Argus, those great champions of Brighton’s homeless and of those who help them.

Nearly a whole month after his reflection on St Laurence, Bill Gardner wrote his piece with the headline, ‘”Lying” and “Messy” Poor Sent by God to Test Us’.  With stunning journalistic flair, Mr Gardner claimed that the Brighton priest had, ‘condemned’ street drinkers, ‘complained’ about a homeless man, ‘blasted’ homeless people who came to his door and that he found homeless people “quite a trial” to deal with and here began the international controversy of the Catholic priest who was characterised in the  local, national and international press as somehow ‘hating the poor’.

In his blog post, Fr Ray did no such thing.  He put the many troubles, difficulties and hardships of the poor in the context of St Laurence, the fifth century Deacon who died defending them as the ‘treasure of the Church’.  Fr Ray’s message was that we should imitate the kindness and charity of St Laurence, who loved the poor and showed us that they are the real ‘wealth’ of the Church.

Was The Argus’s motivation just good, old-fashioned anti-Catholicism?

St Mary Magdalen's Church feeds the homeless 365 days a year
The truth is that few people are as compassionate on the poor in Brighton as this good and faithful priest and the volunteers who work on the soup run, the financial support of which is due to his direct appeals to his congregation.

Whatever Brightonians make of the Church’s position on such issues as human sexuality, abortion and marriage, the accusation of meanness or hatred of the poor cannot be levelled at either Fr Blake or the parishioners of St Mary Magdalen’s Church, who entirely fund the soup run to the homeless from their own pockets and who also both co-ordinate and assist it for no pay whatsoever.

Replying to The Argus’s shocking article, Fr Blake said on his blog:

‘Perhaps Mr Gardner might like to help on our soup run.  It doesn’t have to be 365 day a year, once a week would be fine, providing he treats our clients with respect.  Or maybe he could take Jason or Daryl or Pawel or Dawn out for a cup of coffee or a meal, or just come a clear up the next time someone comes in and vomits or bleeds all over my kitchen because he is on drugs or has been beaten up.

Maybe, next time I run out of money I could tap him for a few quid when some vulnerable 17-year-old girl needs to top up her phone to speak to her mum because her boyfriend has beaten her up or she needs a roof over head because she is sleeping in a tent and it is just few degrees above zero and she is vulnerable. Or maybe the next time I am arranging a child’s funeral and someone comes to the door in need of someone to talk because they are suicidal, I can send them round to Bill’s place so he can spend a couple of hours listening to them.  Here, too, I am neither complaining, blasting, lambasting or anything else, just asking.’

There is little doubt that Mr Gardner removed from Fr Blake’s blog post both the context and much of the content of his reflection on the Feast of St Laurence.  Earlier in the same week, no less, he wrote a previous piece for The Argus in which he claimed Fr Blake had expressed ‘outrage’ over a bondage bridal fair in Brighton. He had written nothing on his blog commenting upon the fair and Fr Blake merely gave a telephone reply to Mr Gardner re-stating the sanctity of marriage for Catholics.  What does a journalist expect a Catholic priest to say? So, it would appear that two mischievous articles in one week concerning the same priest might suggest a trend bordering on obession that leads some to believe that Mr Gardner may have ‘had it in’ for this Catholic priest.

Introducing the ‘irritating little b******’

Speaking on the phone to Mr Gardner, Fr Blake had told The Argus reporter that one man who comes to the Church every so often is an ‘irritating little b******’.   This was then emblazoned in headlines and sub-headlines in such newspapers as the Daily Mail, those other champions of the poor and homeless. This was indeed the same man as Fr Blake mentioned in his blog post.  While Fr Blake and the parishioners at St Mary Magdalen love him dearly, the gentleman he was describing is on an ASBO which forbids him to walk on 44 different streets in Brighton and Hove.

ASBO: Something not mentioned in Bill's hit-piece
Still, Mr Gardner did not seem too interested in who the gentleman Fr Blake was describing is, who is known to Brighton’s residents, business community, churches, local authority, police and probation services to be very challenging indeed.
In fact, the gentleman is banned from St Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, having disturbed their services last Christmas, when he inadvertently set his own head on fire while lighting a candle, because his ‘Santa hat’ caught alight. 

Unfortunately for the reputation of Fr Blake, who did not expect his passing comment on the man to be published, Brighton people believe he has in some way injured the right reputation of a perfectly reasonable gentleman when, in fact, his behaviour is so destructive, his begging techniques so very intrusive, that he is on one of the most restrictive ASBOs dispensed to any of Brighton’s citizens, whose ‘anti-social behaviour’ causes distress to others.  Yet, the individual at the heart of Fr Blake’s comment has himself vindicated Fr Blake on a You Tube video in which he praises Fr Blake’s compassion for the poor.

It is a great pity that Mr Gardner opted to go with a sensational quote about the gentleman concerned, rather than to ask more questions about who the ‘irritating little b******’ could be.  Of course, it is also a complete misrepresentation of the truth to suggest that Fr Ray Blake does not care for this individual.  Both he and his parishioners do care about him and in fact, while he is banned from many of Brighton’s churches, he is still consistently welcomed back to St Mary Magdalen Church, despite having disturbed Mass there on several occasions, something known in the Catholic Church as sacrilege, unless worship is disturbed in an emergency.  We love this gentleman, named Jason, very much and he knows it.  If only Bill Gardner had done what journalists are meant to do and investigate. Now, of course, the faithful of St Mary Magdalen Church must ponder who is more irritating and socially menacing...Jason, or rogue reporter, Bill?

A priest's reputation destroyed by appalling journalism

How sad it is, that thanks to Bill Gardner, the erstwhile cub reporter for The Argus, the people of Brighton and Hove, as well as people across the country and across the World, believe the shocking misrepresentation of Fr Blake that Mr Gardner gave to them.  I hope you are pleased with yourself, Mr Gardner.  You have destroyed, for the time being, the reputaion of a good, caring,  faithful, honest priest in the local and now national and international press.  The measure you give out, however, is the same that will be measured back to you.  Do the honest thing, the right thing, the just thing and apologise to him - in print!

Chance would be a fine thing...
This is the very least that Bill Gardner and his editor, Michael Beard can do for a priest who has been misrepresented in their newspaper with devastating effects for his public reputation and the image of the Church. If only they put as much zeal into writing on homelessness, as they do in destroying Catholic priests, Brighton would be a very, very different place.  Until a public apology is made to Fr Blake, we urge Brightonians to boycott the newspaper and for advertisers to reconsider using their advertising space.

If readers of The Eye of a Needle would like to show support for Fr Blake, you can contact the editor of The Argus here.  Its US parent company, Gannett can be contacted here and its holding company, Newsquest, can be contacted here.

If you would like to contribute in any way to St Mary Magdalen Church’s feeding of Brighton’s homeless community, they are always in need of volunteers who are willing to sacrifice their time in order to serve those in whom the Catholic Church teaches Jesus Christ is especially served.

We welcome feedback from readers and aim to build a relationship of trust and mutual respect with the readership of this magazine.  Trust and respect is important.  If only it was important to Bill Gardner and The Argus.