There are nights at the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre Dumfries when the talk or the question and answer session following a films screening is more interesting than the film itself. It happened again after the Film Club screening of the American documentary The Overnighters (2014). Let me explain, the RBC had arranged for a local representative of Shelter Scotland to give us a post-film talk on homelessness in Dumfries because the subject matter of Jesse Moss’s film was to do with homelessness in and around the oil boom taking place in North Dakota located in the Upper Midwestern region of the United States of America. But it turned out that the problems Shelter deal with are far wider ranging than these seen in the documentary.
Moss was not only the director but also the writer and producer, as Ellen Mitchell told us in her introduction to the documentary, and has six previous documentary’s as director to his credit. She also said that his latest work has been described as ‘painfully relevant’ and ‘hard hitting’.
|The men are introduced to their new sleeping quarters.|
The film is set in Williston, which is enjoying a boom in the oil industry. The local population are beginning to imagine that all the unemployed men in America are descending on the town in search of employment. But the reality is that these men are chasing the broken American dream we all keep hearing about and Williston is no different. There are in fact slim pickings as far as work prospects go and an even bigger problem for both employed and unemployed is that there is quite simple no where to sleep. Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church comes to the rescue and arranges for the migrants to bed down on the floor of the church much to the disgust of not only the Pastors congregation but also to the wider public of this small introverted community. He also opens up the church car park allowing them to sleep in their cars and RV’s. The situation becomes even more heated when it’s revealed that a lot of the men staying under the protection of Reinke have chequered pasts. Some have served prison sentences while others are on the sex offender’s register! Gradually the pressure mounts and the Pastor begins to come to the realisation that this refuge for his fellow human beings may have to be closed down.
Described in the press notes as “A modern-day Grapes of Wrath, The Overnighters engages and dramatizes a set of universal societal and economic themes: the promise and limits of re-invention, redemption and compassion, as well as the tension between the moral imperative to “love thy neighbour” and the resistance that one small community feels when confronted by a surging river of desperate, job-seeking strangers”. As commendable as the film is, by the end, and I won’t give away a wee twist in the last ten minutes, you’re not really sure whether the documentary is about the endemic problem of unemployment and the lack of descent affordable accommodation amongst people whose rights are decidedly limited by their social standing or is it the story of a humanitarian’s downfall? Either way is a difficult situation and you will just have to go and see the documentary and make your own mind’s up.
As I have said previously, the screening was followed by a talk from Victoria Long who works for Shelter Scotland as a Family Support Worker based in Dumfries and Galloway (D&G). She started by telling us a little of the registered charity’s history. Shelter was launched on 1st December1966 encouraged by the outcry that was raised after the showing of the BBC’s Wednesday Play Cathy Come Home written by Jeremy Sandford, directed by Ken Loach and starring Carol White and Ray Brooks. The play highlighted the plight of a family, including their two young children, who fell on hard times and eventually were made homeless. After seeing the play, social campaigner and political activist Des Wilson helped to set up Shelter.
Victoria went on the explain that in D&G, Dumfries and Annan are the most problematic area’s and with a 1000 to 1200 increase each year over the last five years and with Westminster changing the benefit rules homelessness can only get worse. Because of the ‘bedroom tax’ single people cannot afford to stay in two-bedroom accommodation any longer and the stock of cheap one-bedroom flats is almost non-existent. Couple this with the fact that the Government no longer pay private landlord’s their rent direct (Universal Credit gathers together six means tested benefits and tax credits including housing benefit and pays the claimant once a month), rents are sky high and if you make a mistake whilst making a claim for job seekers allowance your ‘sanctioned’ which means you get no money for a minimum period of four weeks and up to a maximum of three years! The authorities have 28 days to investigate so you’re going to be without means of support for some time. Lack of employment opportunities in the area does not help the situation either.
Shelter Dumfries, supports both single people and families, people with drug and alcohol problems and domestic abuse victims. Two teams work in the D&G area; one deals with families the other with single people. The local council, who also provide housing and funding, refers clients to Shelter.
|Campaigns to raise awareness and funds.|
Working along side other support services Shelters work includes many other aspects related to helping people, mainly male, with problems including rent and mortgage arrears, landlord disputes, eviction and repossession, damp and dangerous housing, overcrowding and general legalities in regard to housing rights. Shelter believes that everyone should have a decent home, warm and safe, it’s a pity that our lords and masters don’t believe the same! They also advice people on how to manage their finances and any legal problems they may have in connection with their accommodation. All their work does not just involve people of working age but also older folk who have lived in tied housing as part of their employment and now they have reached retirement age have nowhere to live. There was also something Victoria said that particular raised my hackles where as families turn out their own children? How the hell can you sink so low that your prepared to make your own kids homeless!!
This was a very informative introduction to the work of Shelter Dumfries and I for one would like to thank Victoria Long for sacrificing her free time to come along to the RBC on a cold Monday night. It’s just a shame that more people were not there to benefit from it. We are all aware that our system of government is based on exploitation and greed and does not really care about the ordinary working class person, but unless our governmental system is changed completely the poor will continue to be exploited for profit and never get a fair crack of the whip. Organisations like Shelter and the Food Banks will be ever more stretched; eventually with the cutbacks we are promised they will probably get to a stage when they are unable to cope at all. Then what?