Posts Tagged ‘charity’

It is sixty years since two Catholic women, Maisie Ward and Molly Walsh, decided that something practical needed to be done to prevent homelessness and help families and individuals into secure affordable accommodation. Maisie Ward was a writer, theologian and the daughter of a prominent Catholic publisher. Molly Walsh and her husband, Bob, ran a House of Hospitality during the depression.  Molly and Maisie met through the Catholic Evidence Guild. They shared a concern about the needs of young families in Britain after the war. Especially as they saw the damage done to children who were being brought up in dreadful slum conditions and the lasting impact on family life. Molly and Maisie joined forces to persuade the Catholic Church to respond to the needs of people who were homeless or living in poverty – a witness of the Catholic community to the problem, but a service to the entire community.

Over the years many Catholics, usually married women, up and down the country, joined forces with Maisie and Molly to run support and advice services from their homes. That was the birth of CHAS, the Catholic Housing Aid Society. In the early days they raised money to buy parish-based houses to convert into flats for families in need.  They also raised money for people to use as a deposit on a home and, indeed, often secretly guaranteed the loan. They brought together groups of volunteer professionals, such as bank managers and surveyors, to give free advice to low income families who were trying to move into home ownership but were experiencing difficulty in finding reliable, honest and affordable advice.    And they established half-way houses, where people could rent accommodation for a few years, but the rent they paid included a compulsory “savings” element which was returned to them at the end of their tenancy so they had a lump sum to use as a deposit on a property.

Sixty years on Housing Justice, as the successor organisation to CHAS, continues to work to meet a need that is tragically, just as great today. As part of the sixtieth anniversary celebrations we are re-issuing “Homelessness: a fact and a scandal” first published in 1990. The problem described then is very similar to the problem as it exists today – but the political and social context in which we are operating is very different. There have been huge changes in attitudes to poverty and to the role of the state as provider of a welfare safety net. But there has also been a big increase in the number of church linked projects, like the winter night shelters Housing Justice supports, and in the number of volunteers from faith communities of all stripes who want to do something to make a real difference. The times are ripe for change.

So maybe, just maybe this is the time when the battle to end homelessness in England is about to make another leap forward. There are three developments that I present in evidence.

The first is the CLG committee’s Homelessness Inquiry. This is an in depth look at the causes of homelessness and the effectiveness of the work being done to tackle it by the voluntary sector and by Local Authorities. It is currently hearing selected oral evidence but it is still open to late submissions if you want to send one.

The second is the independent review of homelessness legislation published on26th April by Crisis. Again this is an in depth review by experts from across the spectrum of Local Authorities and third sector organisations. The focus here is on the legal duties owed to homeless people in England. Even though there is not complete agreement about the recommendations there is broad consensus and the appendix proposes detailed amendments to the current legislative position including the institution of a duty to prevent homelessness.

So far so good – and perhaps you are all thinking that we have been here before. The third element though is a minister who is engaging both with the sector and with the not so usual suspects. Marcus Jones may have got off to a rocky start at Homeless Link’s conference in 2015 but he has made up for it since. He has read the reports, visited projects, talked to people with experience of homelessness and seems to be genuinely committed to finding better ways to prevent people becoming homeless in the first place. Of course this is all on the back of changes that have already taken place in Scotland and are underway in Wales, but I don’t mind if we English are followers rather than leaders here so long as we get there in the end.


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

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.

Last week I learned (from Allen Reesor, Director of US company, Metrix Research) that when you’re thinking about how to raise money a good place to start is to understand why people give – what is it that prompts them to be generous?

He said you should begin by thinking about what you yourself are looking for in the activities you do in your own leisure time. That’s because (and this was an epiphany for me) giving is a leisure activity; it is not what you do at work.

But on reflection I think this shows through in the number of volunteers who help at winter night shelters precisely because that sort of thing (welcoming people into a church hall converted into a dormitory, serving and eating communal meals, chatting to people from widely differing backgrounds) is not what they do in the rest of their lives.

So when people give to charity they are looking for experiences of refreshment, escape from day-to-day responsibilities, re-invigoration, and spiritual up lift. All of which leaves me wondering whether this is what I am providing to the wonderful souls who give generously to Housing Justice?

Reesor’s second comment was that people who give to charity want their generosity to bring about good works. His research shows that, generally speaking, donors don’t want to give to build up the Church or to support services provided by the State. Rather they want to see that charities they support are at the cutting edge, innovating, taking risks. For organisations like Housing Justice that means it is important to demonstrate how our Christian faith is the rationale for the work we do. We need to show how God is involved and prompting our work.

Reesor then moved on to things that stop people giving to charity. The research suggests that when donors see that an organisation lacks integrity or that its leadership lacks vision they do not support it. Donors need to trust the charity (and its leadership team) before they give. They also like to give to new work and to charities that can show that they are in touch with the realities of the world today. Outcomes and impact measures need to be realistic and believable and charities should be honest about initiatives that haven’t worked – and show what has been learned as a result. There needs to be a real basis for trust between charity and donor.

For charities its means we need to create a real sense of connection between our organisations and our supporters – its no good just doing good works, you also need to work on relationships…