Under the Arches #5 – Little by little

16th May 2024

Please note this blog mentions physical and sexual abuse, and drug use (no graphic descriptions).


Have you ever read a book by its cover? I know I have. We do it with people we meet all the time. That quick decision makes life less complicated. This person was helpful, that person wasn’t. This person brings laughter, that person carries the weight of the world on their shoulders. This person is ‘on one’ and to be avoided. That person never says please or thank you.

We build circles of friends and colleagues on how much we find them enjoyable, useful or helpful and we tend to sidestep people who aren’t those things.

I was stopped as I walked through The Project, earlier this week. I was carrying some drawings, designs to change our canteen area and Barry* reached out and turned them so he could see them and asked, ”What’s that?”

It’s such a small, seemingly insignificant incident but Barry doesn’t do that sort of thing.


Barry wouldn’t be in many people’s circle of friends. He is rarely full of joy, I’ve never known him helpful or useful. He hides. He avoids. If you walk into a space he is in, he won’t acknowledge you. He won’t make eye contact. He has a way of communicating “Don’t talk to me!” without saying a word.

Actually, I need to be more specific. Barry doesn’t acknowledge people who have positions. A support worker is a position. A City Centre Ambassador is a position. A volunteer in our Project is a position. He lost his trust in the system years ago. We don’t know the full story. We do know he was rejected in childhood. We know he wasn’t allowed toys or treats and was eventually taken into care, where he spent most of his energy escaping from those the system had placed him with. Since then, the people he has relied on have involved him in crime or abused him physically and, we believe, sexually. But those people are seen as much safer than those of us with positions.

I can’t imagine that childhood, or the life that has followed. But here’s the important part of what I want to say: If we had walked away every time Barry had refused to acknowledge us he wouldn’t have reached out to ask about the new designs for the canteen.


We talk about building good relationships as the first step in helping people recognise the opportunities for a better life. What does that mean? For Barry it meant that when we saw him, passed him or stood with him, we intentionally said, “Hi Barry”. We didn’t try to force conversation. We kept it simple. In bad weather we might intentionally say he looked cold or wet. In essence we were saying “We can see you. We know you are there. We are not ignoring you. You are important to us.”  

Recently when I was doing a basic survey about access to health services I asked if Barry would share his thoughts. I expected a straightforward “No”. Instead, he nodded so I asked him my five questions. All his answers were single syllable, either “Yes”, “No” or “Shit”. But he took part! I also noticed he was starting to look up slightly when our team said ”Hello” and there were little nods of his head in response.

Then, on a bad day, he told me what he thought about us. It wasn’t complimentary because he thought we were making a mountain out of someone smoking a bit of spice**. I loved it. It was fantastic, not because he didn’t like us but because he had communicated with me more in that moment than he had ever done before. Last week one of our team told me he was laughing at jokes and not looking away. And now, now he wants to comment on our plans.


I think there is an expectation that supporting people who have experienced homelessness should have quick results. We reduce the issue to things. The person needs a house, or needs to stop doing drugs, or needs to do this or that. We should action those things quickly and have an immediate impact. But it doesn’t work like that.

We are relational creatures and the quality of our relationships determines so much in life. Building relationships with people who have experienced rejection after rejection, abuse after abuse and trauma after trauma is a serious task. But the rewards are wonderful. Barry is talking to us, the door of opportunity is opening.


*Name changed to protect identity.


**Spice is a synthetic drug, designed to act like the main psychoactive chemical in cannabis. Likewise offer drug and alcohol support services with no judgement, pressure or expectations. Frank offers honest information and advice about drugs.


Written by Tim Renshaw, CEO of The Archer Project.

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