It's been said that ‘The Church is the Fifth Gospel’ and in our services we sometimes include an extra Gospel reading - from the Gospel of this Church. On Sunday Feb 4th we heard The Gospel According To James, who's been sleeping in St Luke's on Saturdays this Winter, thanks to the Islington Churches Night Shelter Project. ‘It can be deadly living rough. You’re not safe anywhere. Anyone can come and kick you or stab you. People can be on drink or drugs, they can be out of control. No-one is safe. That's my opinion.
The Churches Nightshelter is very helpful, in fact churches are generally good if you’re homeless. If I wasn't in the Shelter tonight I’d probably be sleeping out in some church grounds or somewhere where it’s a bit warm, an underground car park or a squat in a house if I could get into one.
It’s hard sleeping out, the winter cold is the worst of it. Even in my sleeping bag I might sleep four hours at the most. Worst of all is getting your head down in a nice sleep, then being woken up by the police and told to move on.
I look back on me life sometimes and think it went wrong somewhere. If I could turn the clock back, I wouldn’t be in the situation I am. I'm from the North East originally, born in Bishop Auckland. I didn't know me mam really, she died young. She was 34. I was 7, me brother 10. Me dad raised us, he was a miner and a gravedigger but he gave up work to look after us.
At school I was good at athletics, beating boys who were older than me. I was a medium-distance runner, 10,000 metres, 15,000 metres but I couldn’t get into PE college because I didn’t pass me history. I wrote a letter off to Dennis Smith Stables in Bishop Auckland to try and become a jockey and I was apprenticed for two years. I’d be getting up at five, mucking the stables out, getting ready for riding out, going to race meetings. It was hard work for £19 a week. I gave me Dad £9 or £10 and spent a lot of what was left on alcohol. You could get four pints for a pound in those days.
I didn’t make the grade as a jockey and I came to London looking for work. Me first job was in a Gentlemans Club, Boodles, on St James’ Street, near the Ritz, it’s still there today. The chef said, ‘You’re a pretty good worker there James.’ ‘I said, ‘I try me hardest chef.’ He offered me a job and I was there about five years: kitchen porter, helping the chefs prepare the food, doing the wash-up, mopping the floor, stock-taking. It was hard work, nine in the morning till nine at night, so no socialising till the weekend but I loved it. I was taking home £200 a week, living in a hostel in Dean Street.
The eighties was brilliant, I'd turn back the clock to them anytime. Later I was a security guard in Fitzroy Square, then at Liverpool Street Station. But, as I say, the alcohol got to us. Vodka, Southern Comfort, vodka, lager as well, strong lager. I don't know how much I drank, too much. It was getting out of control. After work I would head to an off-license for some cans and go back to the hostel. I started missing shifts at the security place, they started getting cross. I lost the job.
In 1992 I was diagnosed with epilepsy and I’ve not been able to work since. I had a flat in Waterloo, but it was on the ninth floor so when the lifts weren’t working it was a bit hectic. I couldn’t manage the climb and I left.
I lived with a girlfriend for some years but when we split up she kicked me out. I’ve been sofa-surfing ever since.
Then something happened.
It was about eight year ago.
I was feeling really hopeless one night, really down, I felt like I was going to kill meself, felt really washed up, thought it was time to go… but something happened which has changed me life.
I was actually drunk, out of me head. It was somewhere in Camden, a car park - to this day I’m not sure where - and I just went on me hands and knees and asked God for help.
I said, 'Please help me, I need help desperately, get me out of this mess I'm in. Please.’
There was no booming voices, no opening of the heavens, no choirs of angels but something happened to me. I had a feeling, something inside me was trying to get out and tell me something.
It was like me soul was trying to get out and say, 'You're a naughty boy James - help yourself ‘cus people will not help you, you’ve got to help yourself.'
I believe that was God.
That experience made me really believe I was going to change me life around and it has changed me life.
I’ve not done drugs or had a drink since, I’m teetotal now.
The paranoia, the drugs and beer that was poison to my body have all gone.
I used to have rages, shouting, punching the wall, whatever, I stopped all that.
I’ll never forget that night. I went home, got the Bible out and read Psalm 13.
'How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long…. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.’
I prayed for help in that car park that night and I got help. It has given me strength and a sense of purpose.
I’ve made some good friends on the Churches Nightshelter. We’re all in the same boat, everyone has a problem but everyone has a different problem. I’m 51 now so I’ve a lot more experience of being homeless than others living rough and I say to people, ‘You have to help yourself, no one else can.’
I do wonder why I’m still living rough, living in hostels, on the streets. It’s because of relationship breakdown isn't it? And finance and drink. There's a few things…
I’m still asking for help, I’m still homeless. Sometimes it’s tiring, exhausting, and sometimes I get cross with God, I say: 'It hasn't gone my way today, why don't you help me?’
But I believe I will get my own place and start again. That slowly my life is getting back on track, and things are changing for the better. I read my Bible and say my prayers and I feel as though God is helping me, that it’s like he’s speaking to me and he’s got a twinkle in his little eye…’
More like this in The Gospel According to Everyone.