Homelessness, faith and the future

Where are we now?

It has been an incredible year in how the country responds to homelessness. The Everyone In initiative led to over 37,000 in housing need entering emergency accommodation in hotels, B&Bs and student halls of residence. The numbers of those rough sleeping has decreased more swiftly than ever and many thousands of people have moved into more long term accommodation.

Churches and faith groups have played a vital role. They worked closely with local authorities to move guests from communal night shelters into single-room accommodation and then continued to support those guests with food, support and friendship. Housing Justice have played a vital role in coordinating and representing the network of churches and faith-based organisations involved in this work.

I work as an Adviser to the Government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative within the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). I am also a volunteer in my local church night shelter run by Love Streatham in South London.

I did the final overnight shift at the shelter just at the time the Covid-19 emergency began in March 2020. At that time, we had 15 guests, all of whom went into emergency hotel accommodation. It is great to report that 14 of these men are still in accommodation and are still in contact with our coordinator.

It’s just one example of the vital role that churches and faith groups play in every town and city across the country.

The future of faith-based responses

As we come out of lockdown, many churches and faith groups are considering what the best direction to take to support people affected by homelessness.

We stand at a critical time.  There really is an opportunity to create significant and lasting change in addressing and preventing 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.

After a whole year of non-stop online meetings, I was grateful last week to visit 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 service on 3 days a week. 

I will use reflections from this visit to illustrate the focus I believe churches and faith groups should have into the future.

A day in the life of one church’s work

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.

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.

As I reflected on the day, it struck me how much of what I had seen provided an illustration of the best forms of help that churches can provide for people affected by homelessness.  

  1. Holistic approach

As anyone with experience knows, homelessness is a lot more complicated than not having a house. 

The bricks and mortar of a house are obviously a key resource that people need. But homes are more than that: they are also places of relationships and identity.

This means that overcoming homelessness involves more than just giving out resources.

It also involves helping people build positive relationships of trust and avoiding loneliness and isolation. And it also involves helping people establish a more positive identity, building an inner sense of purpose, meaning and hope.

The Men’s Group I joined was a great example of this.  Aside from a simple lunch, there were no ‘resources’ being given out. But people were offered something more important: an opportunity to reflect, share and express their honest thoughts how they relate to others and how they relate to themselves.  To be able to do this in an environment of affirmation and trust is priceless.

Churches and faith groups can offer a sense of community which is distinctive to what professional agencies can provide.  They should make the most of this strength: to welcome people into a community which can help them beat isolation and loneliness and undertake steps of recovery and personal growth.  This can be done to complement what the professional agencies do and not compete with it.

2. Empowering positive change

People who have lived experience of rough sleeping are frequently the best people to help others. This was shown by how differently the Men’s group listened to Chris because his experiences were so similar to their own.

A valid criticism of some faith-based work is it focusses too much on giving out free food and other resources and expects too little of the beneficiaries. Rather than empower positive change, this can often build dependency and resentment and reinforce a victim narrative. It also easily creates tensions with other services which are seeking to help the same people make good and responsible choices.

The best work empowers change in people by utilising their strengths and their skills, rather than just ‘serving’ them. It is vital to acknowledge people’s sense of agency and provide help which enhances their dignity and sense of purpose. People change far more significantly by what they give and contribute to, rather than what they simply receive. 

In the kitchen at Gravesend, I met a 19-year-old volunteer about to go to University to study psychology who was busy working with another man who has been rough sleeping up until just a few weeks ago. Despite their very different life-situations, both were working alongside each other, using their many skills to serve others.

We need to focus on work which develops people’s skills, helps them build a sustainable life off the streets. This means supporting them to find work or other forms of worthwhile activity, focussing on paying their rent and bills, cooking and budgeting and strengthening resilience for the inevitable on-going challenges of life.

None of this is simple, and it’s actually far harder than just giving out resources. But this is the work which empowers change for the long term.

3. Connected to other agencies

In homelessness, partnerships and joint work between agencies are vital. Its critical to grasp that no one comes off the streets into accommodation through the work of just one agency. It is always a team effort, normally involving a host of different agencies whose combined work makes the difference. 

We need to challenge the ‘lone super-hero’ narratives which are popular on social media but are inaccurate and unhelpful.  All agencies need organisational humility because each only brings a piece of the overall jigsaw. We need each other and should acknowledge the strengths that other agencies bring.

Local churches and faith groups have unique strengths, but they cannot do the same things that professional agencies and Local Authorities can.  These agencies have expertise, resources and (critically) access to longer-term accommodation. 

More deeply, agencies working together is a key way to bring the blend of grace and truth that is often required to truly help someone. 

Churches and faith groups will almost always emphasise grace and kindness that is enhanced when connected to the truth and challenge that professional agencies bring.  We need both sides of this tension because when they are combined it is transformative.

Of course, the ‘professional’ agencies and the faith-based work often have different organisational cultures. They will often use language that can be alien to the other, have different acronyms, different forms of bureaucracy and a different approach to dealing with people.

It is vital that these gaps are bridged and there is a particularly important role for the larger faith-based charities who can speak the language of the professionals and the church.

We need people on both sides who can appreciate the distinct strengths of the other and help build connectedness and collaboration. Conflict and competitiveness helps no one!

4. Inclusive expression of faith

Although the church and Christian organisations have always played a significant practical role in homelessness and rough sleeping, the explicit role of faith within services has often been something of an elephant in the room.

This issue was highlighted in the report Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people (Lemos & Crane, 2013). In many homeless services, concerns about coercion or proselytism have led to a general suspicion of faith and spirituality which does not reflect the views of homeless people themselves. This discomfort at times limits the ability of services to engage with some of the perspectives and deepest needs of those we work with.

As shown in the recovery movement, where references to God or ‘higher-power’ are integral to whole programme, often people’s faith and beliefs are very relevant to how they reflect and make sense of what has happened to them. 

This is an area where the obvious strength of church and faith-based services can come to the fore. Just as many 12-Step groups meet within church-buildings, services based in such environments can often more easily facilitate talk about these deepest of subjects and the related issues of purpose, meaning, forgiveness and reconciliation. 

The Men’s Group in Gravesend embodied a very open approach to faith and spirituality. Because the subject was death and loss, some members of the group expressed their clear Christian beliefs; whilst others were equally clear in their unbelief. Some talked about how faith had helped their recovery journey; others about the damage religion had done to them.

The key factor is that faith was not air-brushed out, side-lined or dismissed, and all perspectives were welcome and respected.  It was deep, profound but also genuinely inclusive.

5. Focus on supporting people in accommodation

Faith and community groups do a wide range of work to respond to vulnerable people:

The focus on the street on the far left of the chart is the most obvious and captures the most interest on social media. But often, this work is least effective in actually helping people come off the streets and empowering positive change in people’s lives. Too often, activity is mistaken for impact.

And the social media promoting this form of work tends to focus more on what is distributed and the enthusiasm and kindness of volunteers, rather than the actual impact it makes. When it comes to addressing rough sleeping, I believe there is an inverse relationship between popularity on social media and actual effectiveness. The more popular something is on Instagram and facebook generally means the less effective the intervention is in truly helping.

At a time when rough sleeping has reduced so significantly, I believe the best focus of the faith sector should be toward the right-hand side of the chart, and having an emphasis on recovery and prevention.

Due to Covid-19, many church-based shelters have turned their services into single-room, 24 hour provision. This has both proved popular and also more effective in addressing the underlying issues facing the guests. In effect, they have become providers of emergency supported housing rather than simply ‘night-shelters’.

And, rather than focus on the street, faith groups should focus efforts on supporting vulnerable people in accommodation: to help them recover and prevent them from returning to rough sleeping.

Befriending and tenancy sustainment work is in many ways the least glamorous aspect of the work. The slow work of building trust and helping a former rough sleeper maintain accommodation, may not get as many ‘likes’, but is the most vital role of all.

Many of the guests of the centre in Gravesend are in accommodation but they still face many, many challenges and problems. The focus on recovery can assist them establish a more secure life off the streets.

The growth of supported housing schemes, such as Hope into Action and the Salvation Army’s Malachi Place, as well as befriending schemes such as The Passage’s Home for Good and Housing Justice’s Citadel are exciting examples of this transition.  These projects are empowering, work well alongside other agencies and are in tune with what is needed at this time.

Focussing on what is most needed

Relevant to all of these points is clarity about the difference between rough sleeping and homelessness. When these terms are used interchangeably it can be unhelpful.

Rough sleeping is when people sleep in the open air, on streets, doorways, parks or bus shelters, or when people sleep in places not designed for habitation such as barns, sheds, car parks or cars. This is the most damaging, high profile, visceral and emotionally powerful aspects of homelessness. However, often the sheer amount of concern for this type of homelessness creates a response which is not always helpful or based on accurate perception.

A far greater number of people are in poverty and acute housing need, but a far, far smaller number end up sleeping rough. This distinction is important because the services provided need to address the reality and not an inaccurate perception. To be effective, we need to be concerned with reality and challenge forms of help which are obvious, popular among volunteers or positively received on social media.

Rough sleeping is dangerous and damaging. So put simply, people sleeping rough need support which helps them into accommodation.  This is more complex and challenging than many people realise.

And of course, those affected by the wider issues of poverty and housing problems need a wide range of other support: advocacy and support to access their entitlements, emergency food services, help with benefits or employment, assistance with immigration issues, support for their mental health or addictions. And those who are lonely and isolated need places of welcome and community.

But often the term ‘homeless’ is used as a catch-all which inaccurately conflates these different forms of need. This can lead well-meaning people to think that knitting bobble-hats and doling out soup is the answer.

The future of faith in homelessness

For centuries, Churches in the UK have been at the forefront of addressing poverty and rough sleeping.  Church leaders were at the heart of forming well-known agencies such as Centrepoint, Crisis and Shelter – not to mention the YMCA, Salvation Army, the West London Mission and many others.

Over the last 10 years, the growth of night shelters has particularly shown the on-going commitment of faith groups to respond to the previous rise in rough sleeping.

I think we are at the threshold of another chapter in the story. 

As this paper has argued, faith groups have a vital role to play in addressing the tragedy of rough sleeping.  But, perhaps counter-intuitively, the best way to do this is not through establishing more homelessness services but by helping strengthen the sense of community for vulnerable people.

It would be a positive step if the ‘homeless sector’ could reduce in size as the ‘community’ response increases. Perhaps the most compassionate step would be to be willing to drop the label ‘homeless’ and focus more on prevention and recovery?

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 help 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.

Jon Kuhrt, May 2021

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