Posts Tagged ‘rough sleepers’

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?


So now we have the Government’s second step on the path to ending homelessness – Making every contact count 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!

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.