I live in a very pleasant bubble. Living in Manchester, I’m not alone. I have a job I enjoy that rewards me sufficiently to have a comfortable house, run a car, have enough money to pay my bills and way in life, with enough left over to enjoy trips to the theatre, eating out at restaurants and other treats. And, as I said, I’m not alone. Manchester is a good place to live if you have the cash to enjoy it.
But, as you enjoy the city, shopping in the smart stores, eating in well appointed restaurants, hanging out in trendy bars, it’s easy to miss, or choose to miss, people who are not in a position to enjoy all the city can offer. Manchester has a homelessness problem. Possibly attracted by the city’s reputation of being successful, they come maybe hoping that they can share in our good fortune. But, once you are on the streets, no home means no address and that is enough to exclude you from work. And homelessness is a complicated issue. Solving it is not a matter of putting a person in an apartment and letting them get on with it. These people have complicated problems often involving abuse, drink and drugs. They need support to cope with living indoors.
If homelessness wasn’t a big enough a problem to solve, the city also has a population of people who are not actually on the streets but they are struggling to cope. Often they can be families who are struggling to heat their homes and put food on the table. It’s astonishing that in a city as obviously rich as Manchester where visitors are amazed by the huge amount of building projects going on, streets lined with exclusive stores and expensive restaurants and in awe of the cultural and sporting scenes in the city, that people are going hungry. A First World city with some very Third World problems. The children of people in this position often don’t prosper at school and the problem perpetuates itself. It takes a lot of hard work to break this cycle.
It’s all thrown more sharply into relief at Christmas. The Christmas Markets thread their tinselled way through the city’s streets packed with shoppers preparing for the big day. The restaurants and bars are packed with revellers. There was once a time when Manchester was busy only on a Friday and Saturday nights. Nowadays you can go in any night of the week and the city is busy and buzzing.
I’ve done my fair share of shopping, eating and drinking in the run up to Christmas. I’ve worked hard and now it’s time for me to enjoy the city with family and friends. But I have, at the back of my mind, that there are people a lot less fortunate than myself in the city and they won’t be enjoying the Christmas I will. Usually, if I remember, I’ll buy a Big Issue or give some small change to someone sitting on the pavement on one of the busy streets. I always intend to do something more substantial but I never really get to do it. I need some structure.
But this year has been different. Scrolling through my Twitter feed in late November I came across a post from the co op organisation. The co op, for those abroad who don’t know it, isn’t too difficult to explain. It started in 1844 in the Rochdale area of the city when a group of people, the Rochdale Pioneers, got together to buy good quality food at a cheaper rate so it could be sold to the workers in the Rochdale mills at reasonable prices. Up until then access to decent food for the working poor was haphazard. 172 years later, and a move to city centre Manchester, the co op still thrives with stores across the country among other initiatives. All looked after from their spectacular office block on Angel Meadow. The co op have never lost their original ethos of working in a way that benefits its’ customers, its colleagues and the communities it operates in.
So back to the tweet. It was about #ReverseAdvent. Most will be familiar with the idea of an Advent Calendar. You open a little door and you get a little treat and count down the days until Christmas Day. What the co op wanted us to do was the opposite. I applied to be part of it and received a bright, co op blue box, some basic instructions, a £5 voucher to get me started and, instead of getting a treat, you put one in the box for each day of Advent. Having filled your box you had to find someone or an organisation that would accept it. I, through some connections in Chorlton, arranged to have mine delivered to a refuge for women who have been suffering from domestic abuse. I don’t suppose they go hungry in the refuge but it may do help them to learn that some people do care.
It has been a fun and interesting way to support someone else this Christmas. I’ve been tweeting pictures of my filling box each day through the Advent season as well as putting up regular posts on my blog. You didn’t need a posh, bright blue co op box to do it. Get a cardboard box, wrap it in some Christmas paper and fill it then take it somewhere where someone will appreciate it in the run up to Christmas. 2016 hasn’t been the best of years with some terrible things happening in the world but I’m convinced that away from the headline grabbing disasters and the untimely deaths of talented people, there have been millions of tiny acts of kindness like the #ReverseAdvent idea.
It’s been a lovely idea that the co op, especially Jordan (and his mum), has come up with, getting ordinary people to engage with helping others at Christmas. I am pleased to have had a small role in it. Many thanks. I may have got as much out of it, if not more, than the people to whom my filled box will have gone to.