Newcastle’s Hidden Communities

Peter Campbell wrote this wonderful article for Newcastle Free Press, which discusses the plight of the poorest in our city, and the work of the Comfrey Project;

Wednesday 15 May 2013

‘The city that never sleeps’: an idiom that Newcastle won’t be stealing from New York anytime soon. At 6am we are walking through city centre Newcastle and it is most definitely asleep. I am with the Cyrenians’ ACE project, a service which supports homeless people in Newcastle. The ACE team work with those discarded by the rest of the system. They go where no one else will go to search them out. This is the frontline in reaching out to the most disadvantaged in our community, with complex multifactorial problems. Before projects like ACE these people were thought of as unreachable.

Northumberland Street at 6am is a very different prospect to 6pm. Quiet, still, it is far away from the hustle and bustle of a busy weeknight. The first thing that hits me as we step out of the car is we are not at the entrance to some abandoned building far away from the city centre, we are walking down one of the busiest shopping streets in the country. In nooks and crannies only yards from the shops, you would be able to see some of the rough sleepers from Northumberland Street itself. But that would mean looking, and that just doesn’t happen.

As we walk past Greggs, the social work student who has also accompanied us tells me that this used to literally be a hot spot for sleepers due to the warmth from the extractor fans. Now it is boarded up and there is no one to be seen. There has been a mini explosion in the number of rough sleepers in Newcastle over the past month. As the weather warms and people with precarious lives and little money choose to live on the street and save money that would otherwise be spent on rent.

As we walk through Old Eldon Square I’m hit by the resonance of the cliché ‘the cold light of day’. It is going to be a glorious day, not a cloud in the sky. But now as we walk past the war memorial, the light offers no warmth. The stark reality of living on the street is fully exposed, as we step around the vomit from last night’s revellers, not yet cleaned up to make the city acceptable for the shoppers.

Having chatted to about 10 people sleeping on the streets, we head back to the ACE Projects base. Here the hard work really begins. Enticed in with the promise of a bacon sarnie and whatever help the project can offer, a small gathering of Newcastle’s most destitute are offered supporting services and directed towards others they can access. The first priority is housing, but the range of services on offer goes much further. At times it seemed like thankless work, with very little chance of success. But the drive and determination of the project workers is clear to see. As ex-service users, they have their own stories to tell. Importantly, it means they have been there, and understand the lives of people living on the street in a way that I never could.

It was a testing morning, but I left with a much clearer idea of what can be done to help those on the bottom rung of the ladder. I cycled across Newcastle with my head spinning. The cold of the morning was being replaced by the first truly warm day of the year. My destination: The Comfrey Project in East Newcastle. This is an allotment run for those who have sought asylum in the UK. I walked into the allotment to meet the group who were just sitting down for lunch. Welcomed in as if I was a long absent friend, I learned about their plans to develop the allotment into a hybrid community garden that could be used as a social space as well as an allotment for them to grow their own fruit and veg.

Refugees have no right to work in the UK, until they are granted leave to remain in the UK. The UK government currently has a policy which could be described as active disintegration. They do not want refugees to begin integration into the community until they have been granted leave to remain indefinitely. This process can take years and without access to services such as English language classes this initial period in the UK can be harrowing; many are left destitute midway through their asylum process. Projects such as The Comfrey Project try to give them a sense of community in a country far from home.

As a twentysomething medical student, I can’t remember the last time I did any gardening, and I must admit that I was sceptical as to the relevance of an allotment for these refugees. Within minutes it all made sense. After having to ask whether I was actually weeding or just removing the plants that had been lovingly placed there the week before, I realised that I was genuinely enjoying it. There is something cathartic in using a garden fork to hack out weeds. It also allows you to engage with the rest of the community, as much or as little as you want. Need some space to yourself?

It’s a big allotment, with plenty to be done. Want to chat as you work? A nicer and more welcoming group you would struggle to meet.

As I chatted away, learning about the plans for the allotment, the backgrounds of those I was sharing the work with and The Comfrey Project, it all sounded so simple. At its core is a simple idea, we need community to be healthy: for the shared ideas, the social interaction and the support network. How you would quantify the impact a project like this is having I have no idea, but what becomes clear (as I watch one of the team chatting over the fence to the allotment’s neighbour) is that this project has benefits for the wider community as well. Isolation does nobody any favours.

As I left the allotment I was given a gift of chives and Angolan leaves (rich in iron, good in banana smoothies I was told) which had been grown in the greenhouse. It summed up the whole day. Here I was a medical student, who had spent the entire day with people whose troubles I couldn’t hope to comprehend, being treated not as something different or alien, but as a human being.

A week later the United Kingdom Independence Party won a number of council seats based on the politics of fear, isolation and bigotry. Everything that I saw that day showed me that this is never going to be answer to the difficult problems that we face in modern society. We must start from a position of attempting to understand. Then treat people as they are; human beings. That work is beginning on our high streets and in our allotments, two very British institutions.


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