Why our mission isn’t ending homelessness…

Posted: September 15, 2011 in Rough sleeping
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When Housing Justice was formed in 2003 from the merger of CHAS (the Catholic Housing Aid Society) and CNHC (the Churches National Housing Coalition) a key task was to develop a vision statement for the new organisation. There was a lively debate about the words that should be used to express our aims and goals. Strong voices called for a statement about the eradication of homelessness in our country. But the vision that won out in the end, the vision we still hold to as an organisation, does not include any words about eradicating, or even ending, homelessness. This is because some of us felt that phrases like ‘eradicate homelessness’ can carry the implication that homeless people should be wiped out or swept under the carpet rather than that work should be done to solve the problems that cause people to become homeless. So Housing Justice’s vision is of a society where everyone has a home that truly meets their needs. So for Housing Justice ending rough sleeping is not an end in itself but part of a larger picture.
Of course that begs the question of what ‘a home that truly meets one’s needs’ looks like. For me this includes things like safety, security and the ability to support human flourishing. So when I am asked if Housing Justice defends the right of people to sleep rough as a kind of life style choice I use our vision as my touchstone: if someone has found a way of living on the street that truly meets their needs for a home, then I will support and defend that but otherwise I will work as hard as I can to find them a real home.
So this vision, together with a belief that human dignity is challenged by the lack of a decent home, is the ground on which our support for churches and Christians who work with rough sleepers is based. We start from the premise that homelessness is a problem for everyone in society and not just for those who find themselves roofless or insecurely or inadequately housed. We believe that the responsibility for creating a society where homelessness is no longer a problem cannot be handed over in its entirety to the Government or to the Council – faith groups, communities, families and individuals all need to share in the work.
Housing Justice puts its vision into action through advocacy on behalf of churches, the work they do around homelessness and bad housing, and the people they work with. We also help churches to help homeless and badly housed people through things like training, project toolkits and support forums for Winter Shelter and Soup Run projects. Through this work we seek to enable churches and individual Christians to play their part in bringing about the sort of society we seek. There are two aspects of the work to which it seems to me churches and other faith groups are especially suited. Perhaps the most obvious is the need to fill gaps left by commissioned services. This may be gaps due to people’s entitlement to support, for example, services for people with no recourse to public funds. Or, more controversially, gaps created by the withdrawal or reduction of services due to funding cuts. In both these cases, while Housing Justice would support groups to provide the best, most professional, service possible, we would try to combine the work with a campaign to point out where government (local or national) was not meeting its responsibilities. The second area is to provide people to work with rough sleepers who are not paid to do so. This may happen in the context of a volunteer led Winter Shelter, a soup run, a mentoring and befriending project or volunteers working alongside outreach professionals. Both from anecdotes and from research projects we hear that the people our projects called guests and commissioned services call clients or service users really appreciate the engagement of people who are not paid homelessness workers. There is also the advantage that volunteer involvement enables projects and activities to be available in the evenings and at weekends.
There is much willingness on the part of churches and other faith groups to work with commissioned services to achieve common ends. There is rarely a shortage of volunteers to put this aspect of Big Society into action. However, there is some suspicion about phrases such as No Second Night Out. People, especially those who have volunteered in homelessness projects for some time, are cynical about the underlying motives. I think that local authority commissioners, and the service providers they commission, also harbour suspicious about the action of faith communities in being alongside rough sleepers, interpreting this as collusion or support for a rough sleeping life style. I find myself (and Housing Justice) in the middle of this disconnection, putting the case to faith groups that the government genuinely seeks an end to rough sleeping, and saying to government (and to my colleagues in commissioned services) that faith groups absolutely share the aim of seeing people move away from the streets with lives transformed and hope restored.
Housing Justice welcomes the recognition by government that more funding is needed in order to achieve the goal of ending rough sleeping (and we note with gratitude the role of Homeless Link in securing that funding). As responsibility for tackling homelessness is increasingly devolved to local authorities we can see a greater role for churches and other faith groups as partners in tackling homelessness in their communities, whether by filling gaps, providing volunteer resources or in other ways. Housing Justice are keen to help develop effective partnerships between faith groups and Local Authorities to work to end homelessness.
However, the worry remains that money is being poured into addressing the symptoms of a problem that has much deeper causes. We believe that more work and more funding needs to be directed to preventing homelessness arising in the first place. Clearly this includes stimulation of the building of homes (especially affordable ones), but there is much more that needs to be done to support families, to help people to be better parents, to create adequately paid jobs, to increase security and standards in the private rented sector, and to improve financial literacy. To return to the vision of Housing Justice – we all need to work together to create a society where everyone has a home that truly meets their needs, only then will we have a real hope of ending rough sleeping for ever.

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