In the last year, churches and faith groups have played a vital role in the Everyone In initiative which saw over 40,000 people affected by homelessness go into emergency accommodation in hotels and B&Bs.
They helped their guests from communal night shelters into single-room accommodation and then continued to support those guests with food, support and friendship.
As we come out of lockdown, many churches and faith groups are considering what is the best direction to take to support people affected by homelessness.
It is a critical time. Following the terrible impact of covid, there is an opportunity to create significant and lasting change in how we address and prevent rough sleeping.
And because the role of churches and faith groups is so important, it is vital they play as effective a role as possible.
To illustrate the direction I think churches and faith groups should go, I will share my experience of a recent visit to Gravesend Methodist Church in Kent. During the pandemic they expanded their work with homeless and vulnerable people in their town and run a drop-in Hub 3 days a week.
Welcoming and positive
As I arrived at the church’s community centre, I was greeted by Chris, a former rough sleeper who is now a key volunteer. He took my temperature with a thermometer gun and signed me in.
Vicki, the Church Centre Manager, gave me a tour. The centre was busy but also felt positive, welcoming and well-organised. I spoke to a number of guests: one I spoke to had just left prison, another had fled an abusive relationship and other had been relocated to the town after losing his job in London. They all expressed appreciation for the centre and how it had helped them.
I met three volunteers who told me they only intended to get involved for a short time, but a year later were still involved because of how rewarding it had been.
One man, who has recently stopped rough sleeping, is now a key volunteer in the kitchen and made me a great fried-egg sandwich.
I met a counsellor who has been recruited to bring a psychologically-informed angle to the work and facilitate group work.
And as I walked around the various rooms, I saw professional staff from other agencies using the church’s rooms to meet with clients.
There were Outreach workers from the homeless charity Porchlight, drug specialists from Change, Grow, Live (CGL) and the local council’s Rough Sleeping Coordinator was also on site, helping people to access Covid-19 vaccinations.
Joy and pain
Two moments in the morning particularly expressed the pain and joy of this community.
In the dining room, a volunteer led a time of reflection and said a brief prayer to remember a man, well known to many at the centre, who had tragically died a few days before. Later, in the same room, a cake was presented to one of the long-term volunteers who was celebrating his birthday that day. Everyone gathered and joined in a hearty rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
At noon, the drop-in session ended and the centre partially emptied. I stayed on to join the newly formed ‘Men’s Group’. This proved to be the most powerful part of my visit.
The Men’s Group
About 15 men sat in a circle in the hall. All were grappling with issues which surround homelessness: job loss, addiction, offending, relationship breakdown and mental health.
The counsellor welcomed everyone and introduced the volunteer Chris to give a talk.
With reference to the recent tragedy, Chris spoke about death and loss and shared his own story of trauma, addiction and rough sleeping.
He also shared his journey of recovery, which in many ways had been the hardest path of all, but how he had encountered hope, faith and love through it.
Everyone listened intently. For 20 minutes, you could have heard a pin-drop.
What struck me was the tangible sense of trust in the room.
This meant that after the talk every member of the group felt able to speak and share something of the challenges they faced. Much of this was painfully raw. But many said how much they valued hearing from someone who had been through similar experiences and how Chris’ example inspired them.
After a break for lunch, the meeting was wrapped up and people said their goodbyes. It had been an intense and deeply moving couple of hours.
The best direction for future work
As I reflected on the day, it struck me how much of what I had seen was a powerful illustration of the best directions that churches can go in their work to help people affected by homelessness. These are my 5 reasons:
- A holistic approach: not just giving out resources but helping people form positive relationships and find a sense of identity
- Empowering positive change: supporting former rough sleepers to use their skills as part of their recovery journey
- Connected to other agencies: not being a stand-alone service but connecting to other agencies who have their own distinct skills
- Inclusive spirituality: faith and belief are very relevant to recovery. Spaces are needed where the deepest of issues can be shared in a genuinely inclusive way
- Supporting people in accommodation: rather than focus on the street, it is better to help people maintain their accommodation and prevent a return to rough sleeping
More than ever, we need stronger communities into which vulnerable people can find their place and build a positive life for themselves. We need centres of true community which encourage people on their journeys of recovery and which help prevent them from becoming homeless again.
And no one can do this role like the churches and faith groups can.
This is taken from a longer article Homelessness, faith and the future which discusses the 5 points above in more detail. Please share with anyone engaged in faith-based work with homeless or vulnerable people.