Working with the homeless was a mixed bag. Between the devastation, frustration and seemingly endless feeling of getting nowhere, the entire experience was exhausting. I admit I couldn’t hack it and, after one year as a Support Worker and a further year and a half as a volunteer, I threw the towel in.
There are so many occasions I look back on with total fondness and others, in all honestly, that I can almost feel with heart palpitations. I saw things I didn’t want to see and remember things I wish I could forget. I realise now that, while I naively wanted to make a difference, I wasn’t cut out for it. My desire to do good was overpowered by my self-confessed soft nature.
Contrary to how this may have sounded so far, I in no way regret this experience and believe it has helped me grow as a person and, if nothing else, given me greater self-awareness. I can recall events where I might have played a small part in someone’s temporary happiness and feel an overwhelming sense of warmth and somewhat “purpose”. It was, all in all, just too much. Lives that had such apparent potential seemed wasted, by no fault of their own, but by the cards life had dealt them. People seemed doomed to repeat the vicious cycles that had led them to their current unfortunate circumstances. There were, of course, success stories but these seemed too few and far between to maintain my sense of hope.
I am taken back to this time in my life by the recent loss of a “service user” – a term which seems particularly cold and disconnected in this instance. While I’m sure it is probably an unwritten rule not to admit to favouritism within these sorts of services, I admit I had my favourites. This is not to say these people were better or more deserving of our help but simply that I had a connection with these individuals for some reason or another. Anthony, or Tony as I knew him, was one such.
I remember my first time meeting him. It was within the first few days of joining The Welcome Organisation and I was on outreach duty that day. Being as friendly as he was, he took an immediate interest in me, “the new girl”. We went through the usual: my name and where I was from, both of which struck a chord with him. Like me, he hailed from North Antrim and, as many of us do, knew a lot of the same people. At the time it was unnerving for me but, when I look back on this event now, I have a new sense of clarity and appreciation for Tony’s soft-spoken and gentle-hearted ways.
My family had suffered two tragic losses in recent times and he knew of these. He looked at me differently. From that moment on, we had an unspoken bond.
Tony’s behaviour was sporadic and we would go months without hearing from him or knowing his whereabouts. He never relied on us in the way that others did and rarely asked for help. When “service users” telephoned the centre, it was standard practice that they would ask which staff were on that day and, from that, would choose who they wanted to speak to. If Tony called and I was there, we would talk. I regret now that there weren’t more of these phone calls.
I’m not sure whether my association with his former life in Dunloy – a much happier time for Tony – made him particularly receptive towards me or if it was simply just the familiarity of a country accent living in Belfast, but we had a mutual understanding.
I have no interest in delving into the circumstances surrounding this tragic and unjust affair. I wanted selfishly to find some relief for myself and in writing this I have found comfort. All I can do now is pray for Tony and his family. My prayer is that this very lost soul is now finally at peace and that his family may have the reassurance they have always wanted – that Tony is safe and warm and loved.