There are now over 100 night shelter schemes in the country where groups of churches work together to provide accommodation – last year these schemes helped an estimated 6000 homeless people.
Alongside this there are the many soup kitchens, drop in centres and huge amount of informal one-to-one support that many church communities provide.
But of course, alongside these efforts, there are the larger and well-established homelessness charities. Many are commissioned by local authorities to run services such as hostels, outreach teams, day centres and a wide range of specialist support services.
A common issue around the country is the mistrust and difficulties that arise between these two different groups. Both are trying to help people who are homeless but tensions arise around how this is done.
Churches can be viewed by local authorities as part of the problem – that their unfocused and indiscriminate work undermines the coordinated efforts of the council and their commissioned agencies.
From the other side, churches can view the ‘professionals’ with suspicion. Some believe they are part of an economic agenda to clean up the streets and corral people in against their will. Some activists are motivated by an opportunity to make a ‘prophetic stand’ against the powerful – seeing themselves as the compassionate ‘goodies’ standing up for the poor against the corporate ‘baddies’.
My experience at WLM
I have worked at West London Mission for the last 8 years and our work operates on the fault line between these two worlds. WLM is both a professional charity, employing over 80 staff in 8 different services. But we are also part of the Methodist Church. We run commissioned services but also coordinate the church-based Night Shelter in Westminster.
Tensions between churches and professional organisations are understandable due to their different culture, language and priorities. Also issues around faith and belief are particularly sensitive in the social care world. A wide gap can easily open up between the two and sometimes the tensions can harden into bitter division.
This gap needs bridging because the resources of both churches and professionals need to work together. The gap does no good to the actual people who need to remain at the centre of this issue – the homeless people we are seeking to help.
Whilst I believe passionately in what churches are doing, there is some legitimate critique of their work which needs to be listened to. One is that too much of their activity focuses on giving free meals and free accommodation which asks little of the person being helped. It can run counter to other agencies’ emphasis on encouraging and empowering them to face reality and take responsibility.
Instead of just using the kind of language that professionals tend to use, its helpful to frame this issue in language that churches use. So, in other words, when it comes to homelessness, churches can be in danger of offering a form of grace which becomes detached from truth.
Ingredients of transformation
I think churches need to recognise that over the long term, transformative work with homeless people will always involve holding together these kinds of tensions:
People need second chances but they also need boundaries. They need support but they also need challenge. They have rights but they also have responsibilities. These are just some examples of the dialectical tensions involved in the business of helping people.
Of course, balancing these approaches is not easy. And it cannot be done by one person, or even just one agency. In WLM’s Night Shelter, our professional staff focus more on the right of this chart and our partner churches focus more the left.
Complexity in action
The main point is that both grace and truth are both vital ingredients of change. Whats more, there is a positive dynamic that can be harnessed between the two. The availability of grace and acceptance can help people accept the truth about their situation and be empowered to take steps away from the streets.
There will always be tensions to manage – helping people with complex problems will always be complex – but the transformation of a person’s situation is hardly ever due to the help of just one agency. To be effective, we need each other.
The key factor is that churches and professionals overcome the gap and work together. This is the complexity of compassion in action.
- Please consider supporting me this Friday as I Sleep Out to raise money for the West London Mission, who help homeless people off the streets – see here for details.
- Chris Ward (a former rough sleeper) and I wrote a booklet together called Homelessness: Grace, Truth and Transformation which is available from Grove Books.