Beyond Polarisation

(first published in Homeless Link’s Connect Magazine, May 2011.  Note: this is an abridged version of the Grace and Truth with Homeless People paper)

Mind the gap

Homelessness is just one area of social care where there are tensions between the larger state funded organisations and smaller community based initiatives.  On the one side you have agencies commissioned by local authorities to run hostels, larger day centres, coordinate outreach and also increasingly to address ‘street life’ activity and associated anti-social behaviour. On the other side there are many smaller community organisations, often still church-based, running drop in sessions at church halls, lunch clubs, night shelters and a wide range of more informal support services.   

There is a gap between the two approaches to working with homeless people is, more than ever, in danger of widening and deepening. The recent furore over Westminster Council’s proposed ban rough sleeping and soup runs in the Victoria area are the perfect case in point.  Some larger state funded agencies have come out in support of Westminster’s proposed byelaw whilst some of the most vocal opposition has come from churches.  Over recent weeks a passionate debate has taken place on TV, radio in the press and especially on-line – often represented as a debate between harsh enforcement versus indiscriminate compassion.  It was a prime example of the polarising that so easily breaks out when discussing the best approach to helping homeless people.

One of sad aspects is how both sides lapse into caricature of each other. Churches are patronised as naïve do-gooders, locked in an ‘old school’ approach which is simply out of date and inappropriate. Larger agencies are depicted as having sold their soul to the lure of government funding and have become tools of state control.

This gap is damaging and needs bridging. Why? Because the gap does no good to the actual people who should be at the centre of this issue – the homeless people we are seeking to help.

Resources to bridge the gap

It is an interesting historical fact that most homelessness agencies, whether large or small, have Christian roots. The Salvation Army and Connection at St Martin’s are obvious examples, but dig deeper and you realise that Centrepoint and Shelter were also established by committed Christians.

I think this ‘Christian DNA’ that exists within many homeless organisations can provide important resources when it comes to bridging this gap – because Christian theology has much to say about human transformation.  I realise that the very mention of theology runs a risk of causing many readers, whether Christian or not, to switch off. Surely theology is the last thing we need – surely it smacks of narrow dogma, arcane debates and irrelevance?

Well, sometimes it does. But that does not mean it should.

In this article I want to use the two theological concepts of grace and truth as a framework for the discussion.  One of the ways that Jesus’s is described in the Bible is that he was ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14) and I believe these two themes are very relevant to practical work with homeless people.  The chart below sets out some of the inherent tensions that many of us work within. 

 Emphasis on grace                                                          Emphasis on truth

Unconditional acceptance                                            Enforcement of rules

Giving another chance                                                   Maintenance of boundaries

Showing compassion                                                      Administering justice

Providing support and care                                          Challenging and empowering

Upholding legal rights                                                    Encouraging personal responsibility

Voluntary and charitable                                              Professional and statutory services

Managing these issues will always be an on-going tension rather than a dichotomy because all transformative work with vulnerable people requires a certain amount from both sides of the chart.

The destructive potential of grace detached from truth

Just over ten years ago I was Manager of a sixty-bed cold weather shelter for young homeless people in Soho.  After a few days of opening we would see our residents begging right outside the hostel, using our duvets to give the impression that they were rough sleepers.  We used to overhear them saying that ‘they could not afford any of the hostels round here’ and that ‘no one would help them’ to people who stopped to talk with them.  Often the passers-by listened with real concern and would hand over cash.  The only people who really benefited from this exchange were Soho’s many crack and heroin dealers. 

The ease of getting money through begging was not a neutral factor – it undermined the positive work we were trying to do.  I will never forget the response of one honest resident who we were urging to stay in one evening and get involved in an event we had organised.  As he was leaving he turned and said to me “I’ll tell you what, if you get members of the public to walk through the hostel lounge and drop fivers and pound coins in my lap – then I’ll stay in”.

There is no doubt that members of the public were trying to help these young people and show grace to them – but what they were doing was not actually helping them.  In many ways the problem was one of truth – because the young people were presenting a false picture of their situation.  And this meant that on the street they could easily receive the last thing they needed – an incentive to remain in the downward spiral of addiction and helplessness.

Some of the criticisms of church-based work with homeless people is that too much of a focus on giving free meals, free accommodation, love and acceptance rather than empowering them to face reality and take responsibility.  A person with destructive lifestyle can be simply be maintained in the situation they are in.  We have to face the uncomfortable challenge that sometimes an over-emphasis on grace, detached from truth, can actually be destructive and damaging, rather than liberating and healing. 

Bridging the gap

I believe the balance of the tensions between grace and truth is relevant to the following contemporary issues within homelessness.

Soup runs

I am sympathetic to the concerns that have been raised about how soup runs operate would always urge churches to support vulnerable people locally in their own communities.  The street-based nature of soup runs perpetuate the impression that the street is where help, generosity and kindness can be accessed and this inevitably draws a wide range of people who are in real need of these things. I think it would be better for soup runs to become social and recreational groups working from churches or other buildings.  Where there is no bridge between the established agencies and the soup runs, it is easy for the soup run volunteers to belief that ‘nothing is being done’ for those they serve when often this is not true.   

Sharing information and coordination between agencies (CHAIN database)

The CHAIN database is an on-line system where different homeless agencies can upload information on the case work that is happening for clients and make this information available to others.  In essence this is a mechanism for truth and I think that Christian agencies should warmly endorse this kind of progress because it helps build the kind of unity that improves the services offered. Also it can help staff challenge clients when they insist that ‘nothing is being done for them’ when actually it is their behaviour or some other blockage that is the key issue.

 The No Second Night Out initiative

This is a recently announced initiative driven by the London Delivery Board of the Greater London Authority (GLA) which is aiming to ensure that that new rough sleepers do not spend more than one night out on the streets by targeting and coordinating resources even more tightly.

In a sense this is a key moment in this whole discussion. This initiative tightens the ‘noose’ of truth around each person’s situation.  If the system works well this could be a great opportunity to prevent new rough sleepers from becoming entrenched into a street lifestyle. However, it could also be a harsh and blunt system. I believe it is important that churches support this initiative and give it a chance to work but alongside this monitor closely what is happening to the rough sleepers they are in contact with.

Church Night-shelters

The growth of the Church Night-shelter initiatives across London and beyond are testimony to the impressive commitment that so many Christians and churches have towards evolving new services for homeless people.   They have been particularly effective with those who are unemployed foreign nationals who have no recourse to public funds.  I would urge that all shelter schemes seek to work as closely as they can with the established agencies and ensure a good and effective flow of communication to ensure that they enhance and complement the year-round work of other agencies, rather than unintentionally disrupting it.

The major role that churches have

It is worth reinforcing the clear reality that churches has a major role to play in combating homelessness.  A member of the rough sleepers team at Westminster City Council said to me that ‘What the churches do is such a strong ingredient in the overall recipe to address rough sleeping, it’s important that they do it right.’

We need to have confidence in what we can do – the kind of confidence that allows us to critique our own practice with humility, adapt it as needed and be willing to build bridges with other agencies and acknowledge the ways which our aims and purposes overlap.

In order to be as specific as possible, I will end with the following recommendations for further discussion:

  • Transformative work with homeless people will always need to blend the elements of truth and grace.
  • All agencies should encourage all initiatives which help the truth emerge about someone’s real situation.
  • Churches and smaller agencies need to affirm the good work that the government and commissioned agencies are doing and work as closely as they can with them
  • Churches not to duplicate the work of commissioned agencies, but instead consider ‘what can we do better than anyone else?’ and ‘how might we add value?’
  • Lastly, churches should be more confident to offer activities which help homeless people explore themes of Christian spirituality. Issues such as identity, loss, forgiveness, hope and faith are very significant for many homeless people.

I hope that Christian groups can work as well as we can with others to fulfil our shared the aims of bringing hope and transformation to people who end up sleeping on the streets of our rich but needy nation.

1 thought on “Beyond Polarisation”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s