No Care Plan at the Inn

Posted: December 9, 2011 in Rough sleeping
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This is a talk I gave at St Mary le Bow, Cheapside, London EC4, on 8th December 2011.
The jumping off point for this talk is several questions – and I am not, by any means, proposing a full set of answers – but I hope to give you some food for thought. Questions such as: why do we Christians sometimes fight shy of social work approaches like care plans? How would Jesus respond to a rough sleeper in on his doorstep? What is the role of Christian solidarity in homelessness services? What might effective Christian hospitality to the marginalised look like? What should you – or I – do?
I thought it would be helpful to begin by giving you a bit of background; an idea of where I’m coming from and the place I’m speaking out of. In my work life I’m the Director of Housing Justice, a national Christian charity that helps churches help homeless people and acts as a voice for church action on homelessness and housing. We provide practical support for church linked projects like winter shelters, mentoring & befriending schemes drop ins and day centres and food projects like soup runs and soup kitchens. We train volunteers, host forums for practitioners, provide tool kits for new projects and offer advice and consultancy. In fact one of our toolkits, Faith in Affordable Housing, goes way beyond basic help for homeless people because it equips churches to turn spare land and property into new social housing. We also raise awareness of housing and homelessness issues and solutions amongst churches and other faith groups, for example through Poverty & Homelessness Action Week at the end of January each year. (The theme for 2012 is ‘Breaking Barriers’ and the dates are 28th January to 5th February.) Last but not least, we encourage the integration of faith based services with statutory services wherever this is appropriate, promoting partnerships between faith groups and other homelessness services.
On a more personal basis I’m standing here today because in the 1990s, when I was living in Cambridge, I was part of a Movement for Faith & Justice Today prayer group. The focus of the prayer group was developing a justice spirituality and using the ‘see, judge, act’ model we worked through various passages of Scripture and different social and political issues. When we got to homelessness my husband Ian and I felt called to act in as practical a way as possible, and as luck would have it, a winter shelter was being set up by the Wintercomfort day centre and the Cambridge city centre churches. So we joined the team as over night volunteers because this fitted with our life stage – as parents of small children we were used to broken nights and, taking two different night shifts, we could leave after the girls were in bed and be back before they got up the next morning. It was also an easy thing to do – I wasn’t responsible for the organisation of anything, there was a professional in charge, no special skills were required. What I discovered was a great connection with the homeless guests. I really enjoyed listening to their stories and getting to know them as people. My heart was opened and, eventually, here I am in paid work in this area.
So, to get back to the questions, what would Jesus do if he encountered a rough sleeper on his doorstep? Of course this is a pretty impossible question because, so far as we know, in the society of 1st century Palestine homelessness in the way we see it in our society just did not exist. However, I think there are three things we do know about Jesus that could be a guide to his response. The first is that the things that we know that Jesus said and did during his ministry are all grounded in his lived experience – all the stories and parables are rooted in a particular place and time. I guess he would know something of the story of his own birth in the stable and of his parent’s flight to Egypt and need for shelter there (these are the sort of stories that get shared around a lot in families), and throughout his active ministry he was dependent on the hospitality of friends and supporters for shelter, so this would be a basis for empathy with the rough sleeper (shall we give him a name? Ben, perhaps). So I think we can be certain of Jesus’ empathy with and sympathy for, Ben.
Secondly, throughout the gospels it is clear that whenever Jesus encounters someone he sees them as a person, as a human being, and never as a stereotype or an object. What is more, Jesus always sees the absolute reality of the person; he can penetrate any superficial shell or outer dressing and reach their heart. So Jesus, looking at Ben, would see him in the round and definitely not judge him or write him off for being dirty or smelly or an addict or a failure.
Finally, the accounts we have of Jesus helping and healing people suggest that the solution he provides is not necessarily the one being asked for on the surface. Thus the paralysed man lowered through the roof has his sins forgiven and the use of his legs is restored only to emphasise a point for the crowd. So what Jesus would do for Ben is, without more knowledge of Ben and his situation, impossible to predict – though I’m fairly sure it would be more than a sandwich and a cup of tea.
Picking up that idea about the need for knowledge and information, no one can say where church responses to homelessness fit unless they have a properly informed view of the services available. And one of the problems I see with statutorily provided homelessness services is that far too many of them are operating behind the scenes and under the radar of the general public, or the average punter in the pew. The range and extent of services is actually very impressive – as should be expected given the huge inroads that have been made in reducing the numbers of street homeless people in the last 15 years. Many people are aware of the existence of hostels and day centres, but fewer know of the high standard of services that the best of these facilities provide. I would encourage you to take the opportunity to visit one if you have the chance (and I’m sure Housing Justice could help to arrange this). Beyond this there are emergency beds that are opened up when the temperature falls below a certain level (quite possibly this Friday night in London). This is known as SWEP (severe weather emergency provision) and every local authority is supposed to have a SWEP plan – why not find out what your borough is doing? Then in all the major cities, and especially in central London, there are Outreach Workers, whose job is to seek out rough sleepers and to help them, including finding them accommodation. In London this has gone one stage further with the introduction of No Second Night Out which aims to reach homeless people new to the street within 24 hours of their arriving there. No Second Night Out was begun as a pilot in April and has since been extended and there are plans to role it out to the rest of England from January. Finally there is, again in London, a reconnections service whose job is to persuade and enable people who are street homeless to return to their country of origin – one of the problems faced by statutorily funded services is that they can only be provided to people who have recourse to public funds. Thus there are many migrants and asylum seekers who are not eligible for help and this is clearly a place where churches (and other faith groups) are the only viable safety net for people in these groups.
But more generally, given this spread of services, what is our role here as Christians? A year on from Pope Benedict’s visit to Britain the Catholic bishops’ issued a statement and I want to share a quote from that which I think sums up the core of what we are about when, as Christians, we work in service of homeless people. The bishop’s statement sets out priorities for the work of the Church (not quite a five year plan but as close as it gets) in response to the Holy Father’s call to the Church to embrace the challenge of the New Evangelisation. One of the guiding priorities is “to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God by serving and witnessing to the whole community, especially by supporting marginalised and vulnerable people”. On this basis it seems to me that it is not possible to separate proclamation from service. We are proclaiming by doing – just as St Francis is reported to have said, “Proclaim the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words”. For me this means that there is an inbuilt expectation that service (Christian service) inspired by God will be transformative. It should be transformative for those we serve but also transforming the lives and hearts of us the servants; just as my experience in the winter shelter in Cambridge was transformative for me.
I think the key aspect here is that the service, the activity, is inspired by God. In his recent Paul VI lecture for CAFOD, Christopher Jamison spoke about the difference that this motivation makes (and it is important to remember here that I am not talking about a comparison between Christian and secular services but between different Christian services). He compared the ‘cold charity’ of service inspired by guilt with the transformative service that flows from a vocation. So to call a service Christian, or to work as a Christian in a homelessness project, does not of itself guarantee that transformation. The inspiration or motivation of the actor is critical.
The word that for me informs or enfleshes the transformative work is solidarity. As a Catholic Christian, solidarity has a special meaning as one of the founding concepts of the Church’s social teaching. It is a universal bond, linking all humans, living and dead, of all nationalities, races and beliefs. More than that, however, through the life of Jesus as God and man, solidarity links all humanity with God. Solidarity is an expression of the understanding that we are all responsible for each other; the idea expressed by St Paul in Ephesians 4:25 that “we are all members one of another”. It is not a concept that often finds popular political expression in Britain, although I wonder if the Occupy movement is in fact solidarity striking back in the West having been driven down by the forces of unbridled capitalism?
The heart of solidarity is the life of Jesus, because it is through the incarnation that God is in a very real way in solidarity with humanity and that we are in solidarity with God. The historical reality of the life of Jesus as a human being lifts solidarity beyond the fellowship of people into something altogether more mystical and powerful. In addition, because we know, as Christians, that all of us are formed in the image of God, loving our neighbour (helping Ben on the doorstep as an act of solidarity) becomes also an act of solidarity towards and with God. Every act of solidarity, understood in this light, becomes an act of communion with God; an action in which we transmit and reflect the love with which God loves both the person who is object of the action and with which we love God. The ability to recognise God in every individual person and to recognise every individual in God is necessary for authentic human development. Our belief in this and our faith as Christians draws us ever more strongly into a state of unity with each other and with God.
This is a very high view of solidarity and not one shared by everyone. However, I think all can agree that some of the signs of solidarity in practice are: love and service of neighbour, for example the visiting practiced by SVP conferences or simply checking on an elderly neighbour ; social action, for example setting up a winter shelter for homeless people or campaigning to stop the deportation of an asylum seeker ; and mutual respect, for example buying a copy of the Big Issue rather than giving money to a beggar, or any serious engagement with people across a divide whether of race, religion, age or social background.
For solidarity to be a Christian (rather than simply human) practice it must be permeated by love (also known as caritas). In fact solidarity can be thought of as the expression of caritas, or to put it another way, love is the verb of solidarity. Solidarity is the virtue and the practice underlying the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself. (Matthew 10:40-42, 20:25; Mark 10:42-45; Luke 22:25-27)
So Christian homelessness work, offering help and hospitality to Ben, is solidarity, and if properly inspired, is also transformative action and evangelistic witness. But is it effective?
One of the advantages of a care plan is that someone (often a group of people and possibly including the subject of the plan) has put some effort into working out what is needed and a way of bringing that about. This gives a means of measuring whether a service is effective or not. One characteristic of Christian services, not least because they are not commissioned or funded by outside bodies, is a lack of measurement or assessment of effectiveness. Of course this does not mean that services are not effective, but it can make it difficult to prove claims that are only supported by anecdotal stories.
Lack of connection between services, lack of knowledge of other services at work in an area, misunderstandings and poor communication, as well as the absence of measurement or recording of outcomes can mean that Christian homelessness services are less effective than they could be. Coming, as I do, from a social research background, I can find no reason to be afraid of measurement – the trick (which is not an easy one) is to make sure that you are measuring the right things. I think the same is true of care plans; they are tool that can be used for good, for indifference or, in the worst case, for ill. The ways we record and account for what we do, the ways we organise our services, none of this should impact the solidarity, love and hospitality which inspire us – or the witness which they embody.
Jesus saw through the person to provide the help and healing that they really needed. We are called to do the same. But can we really be like Jesus and do what he would do? It’s a big ask and one I don’t feel I can measure up to. However, an alternative that I find helpful is one that is especially pertinent for today, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, and that is to look to what Mary did. I believe we can all be inspired by Mary’s yes to God, and her trust that God will resource her to fulfill her calling. So let us all go forward in solidarity and love, to serve effectively and to witness to and proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Alison Gelder
8th December 2011

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