Posts Tagged ‘Faith’

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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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?

On the one hand there has been a housing crisis in London (and in the rest of England) for at least the last ten years. On the other, churches have a long history of both practical and campaigning responses to housing and homelessness. The situation we face today is as bad as it has ever been, and is set to deteriorate as welfare reform bites and the economy continues to flatline. But it’s not enough to be prophets of doom and gloom. Now is the moment to shine a light on housing, to challenge the morality of failing policies and to take whatever action we can ourselves to remedy the situation.
Failure to build enough homes each year to keep up with the growth in the number of households has finally combined with changes to the benefit system to create the perfect storm. We are now on the edge of a housing precipice the like of which has not been seen since the post WWII need to replace all the dwellings lost to bombing raids. The churches have always responded to housing need whether by providing basic food and shelter, by founding housing associations, or by offering advice and assistance. (Exactly the activities that the Catholic Housing Aid Society, one of the constituent bodies of Housing Justice, carried out from its foundation in 1956.)
Our motivations are a complex mix of humanitarian compassion, practical necessity (how do I help this caller at the vicarage door), and theological imperative (there are many Biblical references, but Isaiah 58:6 and Matthew 25:40 are good places to start). People in the pews (and even the pulpit) are just as likely as anyone else to have benefited from rising house prices, to be buy-to-let landlords, or to be struggling to match rising living costs with a falling income.
So on October 10th (World Homelessness Day) more than 80 people from a wide range of churches gathered to discuss how churches should respond to the deepening crisis of affordable housing in London; a crisis that is impacting most heavily on the poorest amongst us. We met against a backdrop of rising homelessness and an avalanche of impending welfare benefit changes. More and more people are sleeping on the streets – in July and August outreach teams met 1,869 people in London, up 17% from the same period last year. Meanwhile between April and June 2012 12,860 households (more than 36,000 people) were accepted by local authorities in England as homeless, more than 21% of them because their shorthold tenancy had come to an end. A report in Thursday’s (11.10.12) Manchester Evening News revealed that less than 1 in 4 properties available for rent were within the range of Housing Benefit, showing that the problem is more than a London concern. And at the Conservative Party conference ministers continued to heap blame and shame upon benefit recipients, with the Chancellor contrasting people who ‘sleep off a life on benefits’ with ‘hard working tax payers’ and suggesting that the whole of the welfare benefits bill is spent on people who are out of work, apparently forgetting that the majority of benefits go to people who are low paid, pensioners or sick and disabled.
A key concern is the unfairness of caps on Housing Benefit (in action now for over a year) which are forcing people out of their homes and failing to bring down rents. While economic and political orthodoxy has it that it was the removal of rent regulation in 1988 that caused the expansion of the private rented sector in Britain in fact several other factors were at work. Social housing was being rapidly shrunk by Right to Buy. Lending controls were removed and buy-to-let mortgages became available. Residential property became the most popular form of private investment and the social status of landlords has greatly improved from the days of Rigsby in Rising Damp. The experience of other countries, Eire for example, where rent regulation is successfully in operation, is that the key factor in increasing the supply of private rented accommodation is the confidence of landlords that they can remove unwanted tenants when necessary. The conclusion: rent regulation is a viable alternative to benefit capping as a means of reducing the Houisng Benefit bill.
So how should the churches respond? For effective change to happen we need to change the discourse in our society about both benefit claimants and about wealth gained through house price appreciation. This has to begin with listening to ourselves and altering how we speak of these things in our homes, churches and our media (even the Church Times!). So we need to remember that a homeless person may well be as clean, well read and abstemious as you or I and should not always be represented as dirty, ignorant and addicted. And that the wealth I have gained through the increasing value of my house is actually less the fruit of my labours than the banker’s bonus is of his – and less likely to be fairly taxed.
Churches (and individual Christians) can commit to campaigning for the household benefit cap in London to reflect average incomes (and higher housing costs) in London by the simple means of adding a London Weighting to the national average calculation, and for private sector rent increases to be limited to the annual increase in the Consumer Prices Index as a minimalist, but effective, form of rent regulation.
There is a real possibility for churches and denominations to work together to maximise the use of their land and property in London for social and mutual housing projects, like cooperatives and community land trusts. In the same way that social housing in London in the 19th century was shaped by the actions of private philanthropists like Octavia Hill, there is an opportunity for the provision of genuinely and permanently affordable housing to be created through the gifting of church land and property to community land trusts or to housing cooperatives. Here London churches would be following the example of rural areas, for example in the diocese of Salisbury glebe land has been used to create new social housing in villages.
Finally, a group led by Houisng Justice will investigate the possibility of setting up a new ethical Lettings Agency or Cooperative to allow small landlords to let to benefit claimants and formerly homeless people with a greater degree of ease and confidence.
Now is the moment for churches to once again rise to the challenge of a housing crisis. If we unite our voices, mobilise our resources and focus our activities we really can lift up the dignity of our fellow citizens who have the misfortune to claim benefits, challenge the unfairness of government policies, and take action to make a lasting difference to the provision of affordable housing. The question is, are you up for it?

So now we have the Government’s second step on the path to ending homelessness – Making every contact count http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/housing/pdf/2200459.pdf. And it’s OK – the suggestions (can’t have a strategy or a plan in these days of localism) are all sensible and it’s great to see the quotes from Homeless Link’s expert panel at the beginning of the chapters. But the focus is actually quite narrow; it only addresses itself to actions that can be taken by government (national and local) or by commissioned and publically funded services. Some great new services will be launched or expanded – but how will they be linked with and publicised to the wider community? Homelessness is far too important an issue to be restricted to an expert domain. I am strongly of the opinion that, as a nation, we will only adequately deal with homelessness when we recognise that it is a problem that affects us all: society, communities, families and individuals (and I don’t mean just those families and individuals who themselves experience homelessness). So while I warmly welcome the 10 local challenges in the report I also urge those forming local multi-agency partnerships to ensure that non-commissioned, faith linked services are at the table alongisde commissioned services and other agencies. The experience of local Homelessness Forums demonstrates the value of this. So I call on Housing Justice’s members, and all church and faith linked projects to do two things. First to step forward and join the party – I don’t believe the commissioned services and Local Authorities can or should be doing this alone. And secondly I foresee a vital role for HJ Members and supporters in holding their Local Authorties to account – watch out for a resource from Housing Justice to enable you all to do just that!