Author : Gerard Gough (original here)
Finding shelter and support at Christmas, or at any time of year, is not easy for everyone, GERARD GOUGH discovers while visiting Glasgow’s Wayside Club
FOR many of us, Christmas time provides a welcome opportunity to focus our attention on our families and give thanks for being able to celebrate the joy of the festive seasons at home with them and the Wayside Club in Glasgow is no different, even if the family and setting are both a little more unconventional.
The club was founded—and is run—by the Legion of Mary, a lay Catholic group celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. The Wayside Club has been responding to the practical and spiritual needs of people affected by homelessness and social exclusion since the 1930s.
Upon visiting its Midland Street premises on a busy Tuesday evening, I was met by Jim White, a parishioner of St Joseph’s in Clarkston and a former publicity manager for a textiles company, who has been involved with the Wayside Club for 50 years. He has worked in the various sites throughout the city the club has used. Jim is currently involved in doing much of the secretarial work behind the scenes, but he’s also there to meet and greet the people who come through its doors looking for food, shelter and a little company. Despite his five decades of service though, like many, he was reluctant at first to get involved.
“I was staying in Knightswood at the time and I would have been in my early 20s when a man came to my door and asked if I’d be interested in helping out,” he said. “At the time I wasn’t full of enthusiasm, but I said I’d give it a try and when I went down to help out I was quite impressed. Only five or six people were involved in running it and you began to feel that because there were so few people and there was such a great need, that the work was very important, because the people coming through the doors were really down and out in every sense of the word. Eventually we became like a family.”
Another current member of the Wayside family, who works alongside Jim is Ruth Robertson, a careers advisor who works in schools with young unemployed people. How she became involvement in the club is, like Jim, fortuitous.
“About a year and a half ago, I was helping out one of the young people I work with in one of the schools to apply for a voluntary job and the advert for the Wayside Club came up, so it was kind of instinctive,” she said. “It had always been in my mind to do something like this, so I got in contact with Jim and I’ve been here ever since.”
Again, like Jim, she was apprehensive at first, but soon developed friendships based on trust with many of the people who frequent the club.
Taking a chance
Both Jim and Ruth would encourage others to get involved in the Wayside Club.
“I think if you can get through your first two weeks or so of volunteering you will be fine,” Ruth said. “You can feel a bit intimidated at first, but you get through that. When you’ve been here for a while, people get to know you and they speak to you and trust you more. They could be a bit stand-offish at first but that dissipates and they begin to have a laugh and a joke with you. Many of the people who come in are simply looking for a chat and a bit of company.
“You can’t do anything until you’ve made that friendship,” Jim added. “You have to be very sensitive to their needs.”
Christmas, New Year and winter
These friendships built–up over time take on added significance during the Christmas period, with many people coming in off the streets looking to take part in and enjoy the social aspect of the season that so many of us take for granted.
“We have Christmas and New Year’s parties and they’re good nights, they often go on until three in the morning,” Jim said. “There’s the religious aspect of the season too; we have the crib and sing Christmas carols. We try and make it a little different from the rest of the year. It’s nothing grand but it is different.”
“They all talk about the Christmas dinner and tell us how much they are looking forward to it,” Ruth added.
“The people who come in at Christmas look forward to that wee bit extra bit of company, it’s like having a night out” Jim said. “The bush telegraph works tremendously well, they all know what’s going on, they’re very streetwise.
“There’s a good atmosphere at Christmas. The bickering stops and people seem more cheerful, more willing to crack jokes and smile. I like it when people enjoy that kind of atmosphere and people go away happy, you think to yourself ‘that’s really something.’”
Even last year, in spite of the inclement weather, many people turned up to share in this atmosphere at the Wayside Club around the festive period. It might have been cold outside, but the welcome, as ever, was warm.
“The number of people coming to the door increased last Christmas,” Ruth said. “It was a particularly cold winter. It was definitely the busiest time since I’ve been here.”
“The place was mobbed,” Jim added, but he was careful to point out the perils that such a cold snap can bring with it. “There is a very real danger of people this winter being out on the streets being vulnerable not only to the weather but to violence as well.”
Keeping hope alive
This self-awareness of both the rewarding aspect of volunteering at the Wayside Club and also the more challenging side to the work is something that both Jim and Ruth share—success stories can be few and far between.
“You get satisfaction when you help people find their feet, but you can’t always look for it, because you’ll be disappointed,” Jim said. “Human nature being what it is, a lot of people try very hard but fail and you can’t be judgemental or criticise them.
“Also, some nights I would go home with a terrible conscience, because I was going home to a warm house, a warm bed, having whatever I wanted to eat and having the support of a loving family. These guys on the other hand were going to sleep under a bridge somewhere in terrible weather.
“At times you have to steal yourself away and not become too emotionally involved or it can screw you up. You see a lot of tragedy and wasted life. It can be very depressing work and if you look for success stories, you’ll often be disappointed. You just have to leave in God’s hands.”
“It is very rewarding work in one sense,” Ruth acquiesced. “You go home feeling a bit better about yourself, but at the back of your mind is the thought that ‘I get to go home and they don’t.’ It’s particularly poignant when you hear someone say that they’ve nowhere to go to, because some people who come in have temporary accommodation like hostels and so on. Some people, on the other hand though, don’t and they are often quite distressed.
“One of the good things about working here is that you start to realise just how little your problems matter,” Jim said. “Their problems put yours into perspective, but everybody can contribute, anyone who is in here to can help and they really do help.”
32 Midland Street
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