Homelessness: personal tragedy & political failure

St Martins Service
Artwork by Don Pollard, inspired by Henri Matisse

The annual service to commemorate homeless people who have died in the past year was held today at packed St Martins-in-the-Fields church, central London.  

As part of the service, The Choir with No Name and Streetwise Opera performed songs and the names of 160 homeless people who have died in the past year were read out.

I gave the following talk on the theme ‘My father’s house has many rooms’ from the Bible reading John 14:1-7.

It is twenty years since Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting was released. It’s a gritty, tragic and darkly funny story about heroin and those who use it. Innovative production, a great soundtrack, clever marketing – and a young Ewan McGregor in the lead role – all helped make it an iconic film. And for those who enjoyed it, a sequel is coming out in the New Year.

I’ll never forget watching the film because at the time, heroin was such a significant problem in the hostel that I worked in East London. I was a key worker in a large and very hectic establishment where 140 homeless men and women lived.

Mandy was one of my 14 key-clients that I had particular responsibility for. She was a young woman who had been homeless for many years – a real live wire and the life and soul of the hostel. But she was going through a particularly vulnerable and chaotic period and was using heroin on top of taking her methadone prescription.

I vividly remember the shift when I knocked on her door of her room to check how she was. But I did not get any response. I knew she was in so I shouted and knocked a few times before opening the door with my master key. She was there but was slumped on the floor. She had died from an overdose. All my attempts at first aid were too late.

Her death affected the whole hostel deeply. A large number of homeless people as well as staff and family came to her funeral service at Westminster Cathedral.

I know that many here today will have gone through this kind of loss and perhaps on a more personal level. Of course, every one of those whose names have been read out today has a different story, a different situation.

But like Mandy, so many have died far earlier than they should have.

Homelessness starkly brings together both personal tragedy and political failure. It is about both individuals who face difficulties and problems as well as systems which are not working as they should.

So we gather today to remember those who have died in the past year and to honour their memory. But we also gather in solidarity, and in anger, about a society which fails to protect vulnerable adequately, a society where there is such much housing injustice, where the numbers of rough sleepers has gone up every year since 2010.

What does the Christian faith have to say into this situation? I want to draw out two aspects from the reading we heard:

Firstly, there is comfort in our troubles. 

Jesus is speaking to a group who would have been greatly troubled. The authorities are threatening them, a close friend has betrayed them – but as so often Jesus speaks directly to these fears, worries and anxieties. In a context of doubt, he speaks words of certainty: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.’

It is easy to think that Christianity is all about us believing in God, but it is just as much about God’s belief in us.  In Jesus, God has come to meet us in all our weakness and frailty and offers us a deep acceptance and a home with him.

Sure, Jesus clashed with the authorities in power, but he stands in solidarity with those who have nowhere to lay their heads. Throughout his whole ministry he comforts the disturbed but also disturbs the comfortable.

Secondly, there is a hope to build our life on.

We live in uncertain times of political turmoil and change. Many across the world will be fearful about what the US election result will mean for them. My daughter is 8 and one of her school friends who is a muslim girl, said to her yesterday ‘It’s so sad that we will not be able to visit my family in America any more’. Hope can seem in short supply.

And even more deeply, none of us know for sure what is beyond the curtain of this life. In the reading we heard, even the disciples closest to Jesus are clear about their confusion. The Christian faith gives us no precise map about what the future will hold, but it does point clearly to the path to take.  Jesus says that He himself is the Way to follow, the Truth to believe in and the Life to be lived.  In him there is hope to build our lives upon.

It is this hope which underpins so many of the organisations which help homeless people today.  For me, it’s great to work closely with 13 churches and a synagogue in Westminster who offer hospitality and a warm bed so that rough sleepers can in from the cold over the winter months.

One of our current guests, Michael, got into debt and had a nervous breakdown when he became homeless and ended up on the cold streets. He said to me recently:

“I am now residing in 7 different churches who open up to give us a lovely meal and a bed. It’s wonderful to be able to go somewhere so warm and welcoming each night.”

This is just one example of the difference this hope can make when it is put into action – providing a dwelling place, a room which reflects the acceptance and welcome that God offers us.

So we gather in solidarity to honour those who have died. And I pray that each of us, as well as all those affected who are not here today, can receive comfort from a God who believes in us and experience the hope He offers to all. Amen.

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