Before Christmas you might have come across the story of Matt and Steph, who donated use of a house to Hope Projects.
It’s a great story. There’s a bit of a story behind it too, which I’m still pondering.
Steph and Matt have been in touch with Hope Projects for a while. They’re serious, thoughtful people, motivated by their Christian faith and informed by considerable experience of working with asylum seekers. They know of what they speak. They have bought a house which they don’t need to live in right now because they’re living in what they describe as an intentional Christian community. For the foreseeable future they would like their house to be home to destitute asylum seekers.
Hope occasionally get offered houses on this basis, but we can’t always accept them. Even if a house is free, taking on a house is expensive. Hope has to pay council tax, fuel bills, maintenance costs, a little staff time and enough money for basics like food for residents. We reckon a house costs around £5,000 to run each year. That’s not a huge amount, unless you don’t have it. We’re a small, shoestring charity. Last year we had to dip into reserves and you can’t do that often. With regret we had to refuse the offer. Earlier in the year another couple had offered a house and we had found a different way forward; with a helpful housing association, Spring Housing, we housed a family of refugees, who were eligible for housing benefit, and used the rent to support our other houses. We offered this option to Matt and Steph. After some thought they had an alternative. ‘What if we also raised the £5000 per year from friends and family? Then you could use the house to house destitute asylum seekers’. Now that’s an extraordinary offer, and not made on impulse. We agreed and Steph and Matt began strong arming friends and relatives. Cutting the story short, they, then we, got the money in the form of standing orders. We were ready to go.
My colleague Almamy knew Steph a little and mentioned he had seen her being interviewed on TV talking about asylum issues. That got me thinking. Here is a great, positive story and it doesn’t leave our residents exposed. Would Matt and Steph be willing for Hope to press release this? They would, although they didn’t want the story to be about them; it should focus on the issue of destitution and on Hope Projects. We agreed, although we all recognised that the hook to the story was going to be the gift of the house. We couldn’t tell the story without that. We also wanted to be discrete about the location of the house – there is a lot of hostility out there and it shouldn’t get anywhere near asylum seekers who are already in a vulnerable situation. We got some help in crafting the press release and building a distribution list from Imix, a helpful migration media charity, agreed an embargo date at a time when all of us were free if anyone wanted to talk to us and pressed send.
We got Midlands Today; the West Midlands BBC news programme. We were delighted. They, and ‘Made in Birmingham’ TV came and filmed early Friday morning. They were both helpful and professional. We recorded interviews talking about asylum destitution, about the work of Hope Projects and about why Matt and Steph had done this. We also filmed lots of silly stuff, because TV needs people doing things. 4 versions of Steph and Matt showing me round a bedroom from different camera angles. What can you say? ‘…and this is a bed, here are curtains…’. I dutifully emptied a box of pans, and then refilled it for the camera. Midlands Today went out at lunchtime and teatime. The package (as I believe it’s called) included a little about Hope and nothing much about destitution, but it was sympathetic and got plenty of airtime. BBC also created a short clip that went on the website (that’s the link at the top of the blog). Again very sympathetic but no issue and no mention of Hope Projects. Late that evening it had had 30,000 hits.
This generated a second wave of interest. Birmingham Mail were going to run the story on Monday morning. Also did Matt and Steph want to do Good Morning Britain on Monday morning? I was away on a short break with my wife in South Wales so they were on their own. Not that GMB wanted to talk to me… They were up for it and so off they went. Again, very sympathetic line, interviewers trying to keep off the subject of asylum destitution and a memorable live sequence in which Matt and Steph gamely keep saying ‘Hope Projects’ over and over again. Watching from a hotel bedroom in Newport the charity manager in me punched the air each time. Lesson? If you’re good (and Matt and Steph were) then you have more control with live than recorded. Also more opportunity to foul up, but they didn’t.
Wider press started to pick up the story over the weekend, and there was enough in the public arena that they didn’t need to speak to us, just scrape stuff from different sources and build a story. In retrospect we were well served by initial positive press, because that set the tone for the stories that were then run in papers from the Scottish Herald to the Times of Malta. I’m big in Malta, me…
Third stage of interest in the story. Press agencies picking up the Birmingham Mail story. This is where it started to feel out of control. By now the story has lasted far longer than we had thought it would. Steph and Matt had lives they needed to get back to. One agency were lovely. The other were what we had feared all along. They knew where the house was and were demanding interviews and picture sets at the house or they would publish the address. Steph was in tears on the hone to me, Matt getting increasingly angry on the phone to the agency. I got helpful advice from a former colleague texting from a meeting (thanks Julia!). We held our line, threatening with the PCC and they eventually relented (or at least no paper was prepared to publish the address). (A footnote to this. Both agencies circulated pictures of the outside of the house despite our strong requests that they didn’t. Including the ‘nice’ agency who clearly came back to take the shot on the sly after they pretended to leave. Journalistic ethics, anyone?). Final wave of stories in the Mirror, Express and Star and (gulp) Daily Mail. None of them too bad. Then, finally, it was over and the adrenaline subsided.
That BBC clip on the website and BBC Midlands Today Facebook page. Comments were open on it. It got over 130,000 views. It also got both comments and reactions. Hundreds of them. These were interesting. Most of the comments were hostile. Really hostile. Poison.
By far the most common theme was along the lines of ‘heartless bastards- they should be helping our homeless ex servicemen’. This infuriates me. Because I care, and Matt and Steph care, about all homelessnes, not just asylum homelessness. Strangely the numbers of people who comment are not reflected in either volunteering or donations to help homelessness charities. I’m sure their are exceptions but the Britain First constituency are not overrepresented among the thankless unpaid staff of Birmingham’s hard working and hard pressed homelessness charities. There is a housing crisis. There is. And some people fall through the increasingly ragged safety net and are left homeless, and even eligibility to housing benefit may only leave hostel or bed and breakfast as an option. Scandal. It really is. Destitute asylum seekers, on the surfer hand, are just that. Destitute. Go read any of my previous blog posts. I get tired of explaining. We are deliberately starving people into return, and some people fear things worse than starving and so they’re still here fighting for protection. Hostels or bed and breakfast are not on offer. That’s why Steph and Matt wanted to use their house for this uniquely vulnerable group of people.
Other observations from negative commentators? That they would be getting rent from the asylum seekers (not so, read above), and that they sought publicity for their good deeds. I feel guilty about this, because I asked then to do this, and they did, but their first condition was that the story wasn’t about how great they were. We tried, but you don’t get to control the way the story is portrayed and we knew this was a risk.
There were positive comments too. People who cheered then on, and people who didn’t get it but recognised the scale of the generosity and ‘it’s their money…’. Fewer and less emphatic (and often better spelled), but not inconsiderable.
More interesting still was the ‘reacted to’. The first time I checked, they were balanced. Slightly more ‘likes’ than negative reactions. Over time, ‘likes’ pulled away. The last time I checked over 1200 likes or hearts etc. and fewer than 200 negatives.
Most people recognised and respected, even loved, what Matt and Steph had done. There is a small but dedicated group of people who are irrevocably hostile, very vocal and incredibly quick to comment. If you don’t look carefully you think these are the majority. They make enough noise, they are first to comment and that sets the tone. But they’re not. They are a minority. As Yeats put it:
‘ The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’
Part of our task is to find the bruised majority, remind each other that we are not alone and find, with them, a voice.
You can read Steph’s reflections here