Homelessness, Social action

Homelessness: are we really helping?

A few years ago I was invited to speak at a conference in a church in the North East of England with the title: Homelessness: are we really helping?

The organisers had read a paper I had written for a Housing Justice forum titled The practice of grace and truth with homeless people and wanted me to open up a discussion about what really helps people affected by homelessness.

It was a good event, with around 120 people attending from churches, charities and the local authority. Also speaking was a number of people with experience of homelessness.  Plus four bishops were also in attendance.

Grace and truth

As part of my talk I used this slide and talked about the need for our work to balance grace and truth if was to be effective in helping people:

Two of the bishops in particular did not agree with what I said. After I spoke, one stood up and was sharp in his criticism accusing me of ‘taking us back to the days of the deserving and undeserving poor’.

I am fine being disagreed with (especially by Bishops!) and actually most conferences are hugely improved by some proper debate. But what was interesting was that whilst senior clergy disagreed with what I said, those with actual experience of homelessness all agreed with me.

Recovery

One woman, who had recovered from years of chaotic heroin addiction spoke about the moment she knew she was making progress was when she paid her electricity bill.  After years of drug-related chaos and ‘ripping people off’, it was the first time she had properly paid for anything in years.

I thought this story said so much about the theme of the day.  She did not say ‘my life changed when people gave me free stuff’. Her progress in recovery was shown by her taking responsibility for herself, having agency and growing in dignity.

Tendencies

The church and other faith groups do vital work to support people affected by homelessness.  But there is an on-going tendency in many projects to emphasise a form of grace (the left side of the chart) which is too detached from truth (on the right). 

I would say the following tendencies are fairly common:

  • A focus too much on one-way service of giving out resources
  • Not enough emphasis on building honest relationships with clear boundaries and an element of challenge
  • Not enough emphasis on empowering people to grow and use their skills
  • Conflating the chronic issues of loneliness and food poverty with the crisis of homelessness
  • Groups which work in isolation from other agencies and don’t collaborate

Pivoting

I was encouraged by the strong reaction to my review of the US book Toxic Charity a few months ago. A number of church projects got in touch to discuss the themes of the book and how they can pivot towards a more empowering approach.

One of the conversations I have been having is with Caritas, the Catholic Social Action agency.  They have invited me and my friend Chris Ward to speak at an online event this Thursday.

Chris is the best speaker I know on these issues. He slept rough for 3 years and has battled addictions and many associated challenges. We have done many talks together and in 2013 we co-wrote a booklet Homelessness: grace, truth and transformation. His wisdom, bravery, humour and on-going recovery from street homelessness and addiction continues to inspire me.

Postscript to the conference

There was an interesting postscript to the conference I described earlier. One of the Bishops who had been concerned about what I said that day, later did a sabbatical and worked for some months at a large centre for homeless people in central London.

At the end of his time there, he phoned me and asked to meet for a coffee.  He was very gracious and explained that although he had disagreed with what I had said at the conference, his time working on the frontline had changed his views. He said ‘Now, I think I am about 85% in agreement with you’. 


The Caritas Social Action online event is on Thursday 26th May at 3.30-5pm. Click here for details.

Listen to an interview with Chris Ward: Everyone else was nice, but she told me the truth I needed to hear

The Church Urban Fund produced a write-up of the ‘Homelessness: are we really helping?’ conference and it includes the testimonies of those with lived experience

4 thoughts on “Homelessness: are we really helping?”

  1. Thanks Jon, great to see the conference held by TM&C is still having an impact. Today we are embarking on a journey to be more involved with homelessness support and community-led social housing so this is a timely reminder of how to do it well, the pitfalls to avoid, and where our journey began!

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    1. Thanks Kate. It was a really good event and I was glad to be part of it. It would be great to know more about TM&C’s current work so I will drop you an email. Thanks!

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  2. A very perceptive blog, Jon, based in your deep understanding of our client group and their many challenges. We can learn best from those who, like Chris, have recovered their lives, but it is important that we keep trying. Even though I am part of it, I find it an appalling reflection on our society (and many others) that a whole industry has grown up supporting the homeless, and very few who talk about housing understand the root causes of homelessness in vulnerable adults. It doesn’t matter that the industry is (mostly) good at what it does and the individuals are dedicated to changing the status quo, the government just lets us do it.

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    1. Thanks Lorna for reading and commenting. Whenever the term ‘industry’ is used in relation to services which seek to help people, its a reminder to me of the vital importance of keeping the main thing the main thing – and helping people transform and change rather than allowing ‘sector survival’ and ‘sector growth’ to dominate the thinking…

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