Posts Tagged ‘Christian’

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.

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There is a story about how, if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly bring it to the boil, the frog doesn’t realise its danger until the water is close to boiling and the poor reptile has died. This is a really good analogy for the slow build-up of Britain’s housing crisis over the last 35 years. For most of the population – people who own their homes outright, are buying with a mortgage taken out some time ago, or who rent from their Local Authority or a Housing Association – the facts of the national housing crisis do not impinge on their daily lives.

There are three inter-related aspects to it – we do not have sufficient homes for the needs of our population; the homes we have are too expensive (whether to rent or to buy); we are not building new homes at a fast enough rate. None of these issues has been successfully tackled by any Government of any persuasion since the mid-seventies – and I have to admit to having little confidence that the plans put forward by the current Conservative Government will be any more likely to solve the problem.

So if we cannot rely on the Government to resolve the housing crisis, what can we do? If there was a single silver bullet it would surely have been deployed by now. Pretty much everything has been tried apart from massive investment by central government and that seems an unlikely prospect before 2020. So the answer is must be that we need to pick up on all the small (or even medium-sized)things that individuals, Housing Associations, Local Authorities, churches and communities can do. The focus has to be on incremental changes rather than big bold solutions; and, I think, on partnerships rather than solo developments.

It is no secret that many Housing Associations have been founded by churches or by groups of Christians, or that Christian philanthropists (think of Rowntree, Leverhulme and Octavia Hill) have been behind many of the innovations in social housing provision from the dissolution of the monasteries onwards. Inspired by this and encouraged by Archbishop Justin Welby’s speech to the National Federation,  Housing Justice have worked with the Centre for Theology and Community,  (funded by Chapter 1 and Quaker Housing Trust) to research and publish a report called, “Our Common Heritage”, which sets out the possibilities that could be realised if we can build on the shared heritage of the churches and of Housing Associations. In the report we identify six practical ways in which Housing Associations and churches are already working together and which could be replicated more widely:

  • Building social housing on church land (e.g. converting redundant church or vicarage sites)
  • Involving Church volunteers in support for Housing Association residents (everything from parent and toddler groups to job clubs)
  • Addressing the spiritual needs of Housing Association tenants (this often already happens for residents of supported housing for the elderly)
  • Campaigning together on housing issues (locally and nationally – and note that most church congregations include some Council members…)
  • Providing social housing for key church workers (e.g. youth workers)
  • Church investment in housing provision (an ideal form of ethical investment).

But it’s all very well to list what can be done – and even to give examples – the real question is how do we make this happen; how can we nudge, inspire and enable people and churches to join with Housing Associations to tackle the Britain’s housing crisis? One of the biggest barriers we found was ignorance – neither churches nor Housing Associations know enough about the other to think of them as natural partners.

I think there is a two step process needed here. The first step is to share information and stories about the reality of the crisis. The more we can talk about real life experiences of housing need and housing unaffordability, the more real the housing crisis will become for those who are lucky enough to have a secure home that meets their needs and that they can afford to pay for. The second step is for Housing Associations to consciously seek to work in partnership with churches and other faith communities, to do what we can. Housing Justice stands ready to facilitate these small steps that will begin to make the housing crisis history.

For more information or to download the report go to www.housingjustice.org.uk or call 020 3544 8094.

The latest figure for the number of rough sleepers in England was released on 26th February – as expected, at 2,744 it was higher than the 2013 number of 2,414 (by 14%). In any event it is only a snapshot of the number of people counted sleeping rough on one night in November in some Local Authority areas, plus estimates from those areas who decided not to carry out a count. In some ways the estimates are a more reliable indicator of the problem than the actual counts because they are based on intelligence drawn from a range of sources across the community including both official homelessness services, voluntary projects and parishes who come into contact with homeless people, for example folk sleeping in church porches or calling at the presbytery door for assistance. The real number of people who need help because they are homeless or in danger of being made homeless is much higher than the number who can be found sleeping on the streets. A rigorous research project funded by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been monitoring homelessness and its causes in England, Scotland and Wales since 2012. Their latest report for England has recently been published and that found 280,000 people were homeless or on the verge of homelessness in 2013/14.

Of course volunteers in church homelessness projects like night shelters and day centres or drop-ins don’t need to be told that the problem is getting worse. They can tell you from their own experience of the people they have been trying to help. This winter I have been volunteering in my local night shelter – sometimes sleeping over in the church hall with our homeless guests and sometimes serving breakfasts. Since November I have seen the number of people needing our shelter creep up from 15 to 22. That may not seem like a big increase but we are just one of about 90 similar shelters across England and Wales – and the statistics we collect centrally at Housing Justice suggest that this pattern is being repeated in other places.

Very few night shelter guests fit the stereotype of homeless people. The vast majority are people who are just down on their luck rather than alcoholics or drug addicts. Some of them are holding down jobs so that they can save a deposit to rent a flat, and one brave 18 year old in our shelter is at school studying for A levels. Official statistics show that many more people are becoming homeless just because their tenancy in the private rented sector has come to the end of its term and they are unable to find anywhere else they can afford in time to move in an orderly way. Changes to the benefits system are not helping, especially for people under 35 who receive much less State help with housing costs than they did before 2010. At the same time cuts to Local Authority budgets mean that their services to help homeless people are much reduced. This is where the Church is coming into its own. Without the services – night shelters, day centres, drop-ins, mentoring and befriending, hosting schemes – that parishes are providing people would be homeless for longer, would not get the help they need to find and keep proper accommodation, and more people would be dying homeless on our streets. The scary thing is that the problem is getting worse and so we need to do even more. Could you volunteer in a night shelter next year?

I hope that as you read this you are somewhere warm and comfortable and where you feel secure – or that at least you have somewhere like that to return to. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens do not have this luxury. Rough sleeping, the visible iceberg tip of homelessness, has been increasing month on month for more than a year now. The first victims of the Coalition Government’s benefit cuts, people between 26 and 34 in age whose Housing Benefit no longer covers the cost of independent accommodation, have begun to turn up homeless at church-run drop ins. As the Night Shelters Housing Justice supports have opened for the new winter season they are quickly filling up with street homeless people, and with those who have run out of friend’s floors to sleep on.
And all this before the worst of the planned cuts in benefits have begun. All over our country there are families where a cloud has been cast over Christmas by the receipt of a letter informing them that from 1st April the money they receive will be cut by the Overall Benefit Cap. Whatever the size, ages and particular needs of the family they will be limited to £500 per week to pay for all their wants. People who were already making hard decisions about whether to heat their home or have sufficient to eat are now faced with the additional worry of whether to scrimp further to pay the rent or try to find somewhere else (somewhere smaller and cheaper) to live. This is the backdrop for the announcement by the Chancellor that benefit increases will no longer be linked to inflation but instead will be fixed at 1% for the next three years. If we really believe that, as the Psalmist says, the Lord hears the cry of the poor, then a thunderous roar must be rising up from Britain as so many poor and marginalised people are made to bear the brunt of cuts to reduce our national deficit.
But what are we to do? How should we respond? First with practical help and hospitality: we can give food, clothes and a warm welcome to the homeless, hungry and needy people who turn to our churches and charities for help and support. (There are more suggestions for practical help at http://www.housingjustice.org.uk.) Second with prayer, mindfulness and attention: be aware of the people around you at work, in the shops, in the street – recognise the dignity, the troubles, and the peace in them. Finally be prepared to stand up for those who are labelled as scroungers and shirkers – a truly fair society is one where poor and homeless people are the last to be scapegoated and penalised.

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