Thursday, September 10, 2009

Save the Willow Walker

click to go to the Willow Walker website

It sounds like a songbird facing extinction, but it's actually a high-quality street magazine produced by homeless and formerly homeless people, and it's just as threatened.

click to go to Alexander Masters' homepageThe Willow Walker began in 2002 under the editorship of Alexander Masters, who would later write Stuart: a Life Backwards, which was filmed by the BBC, starring Black Hawk Down's Tom Hardy. It's named after the English Churches Housing Group's hostel in the city's Willow Walk. Towards the end of his tenure, Masters started an occasional series of sketches of people who were homeless or living in hostels in The Guardian.

lecturer and community artist Kirsten Lavers - click to see some of her projectsKirsten Lavers, the present editor, took over in 2005. One of the accomplished artist's many achievements as an empowerer of people was a scheme in the city's Arbury Park whereby residents made their own signs for unmarked streets.

Kirsten acted as an amplifier to help present and formerly homeless people make their voices heard. She was involved in the inception of Homeless Truths show on 209 Radio, the only one in the world to be produced and presented by homeless, ex-homeless and vulnerably housed people. There was, of course the critically lauded double CD Both Sides of the Tracks, which showcased the sheer talent waiting to be mined in the street community. And it's doubtful whether Cambridge Link Up, a business homeless truths - click to see the show's webpage on 209 radiorun by homeless and formerly homeless people, would have gotten off the ground without the Willow Walker, with Kirsten's genius for building people up and her burning ambition for others to do better at the centre.

People have moved closer to or even into permanent housing through the Willow Walker and related services; they have learnt new skills - including that of daring to value oneself again - and moved into employment; and there had been plans to employ a homeless person to assist with the production of the 2000 issues which, most quarters, go to councils, homess people, and the services which those who are homeless and/or roofless access.

So I was dumbfounded to learn that Kirsten has been given her redundancy notice because Church Housing Trust, the fundraising arm of the English Churches Housing Group, has decided that the magazine's activities are in conflict with its Christian ethos, and is no longer raising monies for the project's annual £15,000 running costs, although the ECHG's Graham Haynes is trying his damnedest to source sponsorship.

I'm sure this move, which will keep media theologians in beer-money for years, is the last thing that is needed in the present economic crisis, when nationalised and state-subsidised banks are repossessing homes faster than they did before they asked the state for help. Former ITN reporter Ed Mitchell, who earned £100,000 before he landed on the streets, remarked in 2007 that "There is a tsunami of bad debt about to hit this economy...Pandora's box has been opened." His prophecy has been realised, and now is not the time to be breaking up the lifeboats to feed the boilers.

Here's a link to the Willow Walker's entire archive - make your own mind up about its ethos. If you think Jesus might have approved - and He seems to have posited Salvation as being a matter of what we do as much as what we say - please use the ECHG's contact details to tell them about it respectfully.

If you live in or near Cambridgeshire and can offer Graham Haynes information supporting the value of the Willow Walker to projects and clients, please email him on

the Willow Walker - What Would Jesus Do?

Click to read Chris Havergal's article Voice of Homeless could be Silenced for the Cambridge News

Click to read Alexander Master's series on homelessness in the Guardian:

Street Tough

Eating Langoustine in Scotland

The English Patent

And on Tales from a Draughty Old Fen:

Homeless not hopeless

Catching Street Voices

Both Sides of the Tracks

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