Homelessness and the role of the church

This is a short Homily given at a special service at All Saints Fulham on Sunday 29/09/13. The Choral  Evensong included the 3 choirs of All Saints Fulham, St Martin in the Fields and St Luke’s Chelsea, and was organised to raise funds for the work of the Connection at St Martins, West London Churches Homelessness Concern, and Housing Justice

AllSaints

In this splendid and venerable building, having listened to those prophetic scriptures and, of course, to the wonderful singing of the 3 choirs, it is my privilege to talk to you for a few minutes about Homelessness, and the role of the church.

I pray that these words may encourage, challenge and inspire.

Thanks to Eileen and the clergy team for inviting me to come and speak this evening. I’m not quite on home turf, but when I first came to live in London in my early teens our house was not far away. The street where we lived is now part of what estate agents call Brackenbury Village, but in those days it was just off the good old Goldhawk Road!

Homelessness is a sort of calling for me: a subject that occupies my mind and my working week. I have been personally involved in community action amongst people who are homeless or on the margins since 1990. I started as a volunteer at the West London Day Centre, and then worked in various projects including the Passage day centre, Emmaus, and the Islington Churches Winter Shelter. For the past 10 years I have worked for Housing Justice, the national Christian voice on housing and homelessness. We work at the sharp end, with church shelters and local housing action for example, and also seek to influence the public debate on housing and homelessness. I brought along a few newsletters for those who are interested.

I would like to look with you at some current issues and responses, both at a corporate and at a personal level. But first a quick look at how the church has helped shape our nation historically.

God-fearing people, inspired by the gospel of Jesus, led in the inception of virtually every institution in this country: from schools, to hospitals, to the foundations of our systems of law and government; and to the launch of the NHS and the modern welfare state. Attlee’s Labour Govt. won that historic post war election with a vision of a “New Jerusalem” where human need would be taken care of from cradle to grave; where poverty, ignorance and disease would be banished. And in those days of much deeper austerity than today – and up until the 1980s – we were building at least 200,000 affordable homes every year for ordinary working families.

I’m sure you know all this, but it’s a good starting point because some people, like Raquel Rolnick, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing , warn that this country is in the process of dismantling this historic and exemplary safety net.

I’m sure there are a range of opinions on this, but I’d like to put it this way, if I may: The state, inspired and encouraged by an ideal of Christian charity, created a universal social safety net, and now the state is in the process of stepping back from this role.

Now you may have me pegged already as a semi un reconstructed Christian leftie.. In which case it may be a surprise that I do partially support this. When the state took on this role it made local self-help initiatives, like savings clubs and mutual societies etc.  mostly redundant. And these were often well run, rooted in the community, efficient and accountable.

Philip Blond analysed this in his book Red Tory, which many of you probably know. David Cameron’s “Big Society” notion, which we don’t hear so much about now (I wonder why?) is found in Blond. He offers a critique BOTH of an overly centralist and all-powerful state AND of the neo liberalist over reliance on the market as the means of managing everything.

A good example of the over centralising state taking powers to itself to which it has no business was the attempt by Westminster Council to criminalise soup runs in 2011. I’m proud to say that Housing Justice played a part in opposing that particular policy, together with the members of our soup run forum. This very bad idea was eventually dropped by Westminster Council.

But the scaling back of the role of the state has now gone so much further than is healthy, especially for poor families unable to make ends meet.  This govt. will be known as presiding over the rise of the food bank, and for cuts to local authority budgets so draconian that in many boroughs they have meant the closure of amenities like libraries and public lavatories. The “bedroom tax” may yet prove to be Cameron’s poll tax, which contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher.

So where is the church corporately in all this, today?

Rightly the church is raising its voice politically. Did people see “Truth and Lies about Poverty” by the Joint Public issues Team? It tackles head on the media myths and misinformation about benefit scroungers etc. and received good media attention earlier this year when it was launched.

Housing Justice is one of the charities involved in the current “Who benefits” campaign, along with Crisis and Save the Children, and many others.

The church is also finding creative ways to respond to local needs. Many churches are opening debt advice surgeries and some have launched credit unions for example.  I know that this church supports West London Churches Homeless Concern and the Connection at St. Martins, and this is excellent. I’m hoping you might add Housing Justice to your list, actually!

I’m sure also that some of you roll up your sleeves and volunteer in these projects or other local initiatives, offering hospitality and help to people in need. And this is so important. It relates to the point I was making about the proper role of the state. We miss something absolutely vital if we delegate all our agency to the state. Even if we agree, which I hope we do, that the state should provide a basic safety net for all of us and our fellow citizens.

To be involved personally in some way is to share more: of our own lives, in a mutually beneficial journey towards our common humanity. It is sometimes to take a risk. But fundamentally it is to express and to find solidarity and community.

Those of us involved in volunteering will know that we are as much blessed in this as those for whom we give our time and our talents. Why should this be? It is because God is there: “Blessed are the poor”

All the parts of the body are important, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12: “God put our bodies together in such a way that even the parts that seem the least important are valuable.”

Archbishop Justin Welby recently spoke to the National Housing Federation, encouraging Housing Associations to engage with churches. He said: “The Church’s action is driven by the Christian experience of being overwhelmed by the love of God, given without condition through Jesus Christ. . . And Jesus made a point of going wherever there were people in need – he healed people from his own community and outside it, he healed the grateful and the ungrateful, and he healed the downright hostile. He did whatever he could wherever there was need and he didn’t set conditions. That’s the example that we’re trying to follow.”

I’ll leave you with a challenge if you are still with me.

When we think of homeless people, it is often as people with problems, such as drug or alcohol addiction or poor mental health. But in truth these problems are common in every part of society. We could even, if we chose to, define it in terms of class.

The doctor or lawyer or MP who fills up their shopping trolley with wine and gin every Saturday, or probably orders it on-line nowadays (That’s what I do!) Do they or we have a drink problem? And in every family that I know someone struggles with depression or stress or “eccentricity”. These are all terms to do with mental well-being aren’t they?

I’m not trying to embarrass or attack anyone here.  Just to make the point that the main difference between the homeless people I know is that they live their lives and share their problems out in the open. And most of the people I know who live in houses and have settled lives and incomes don’t share their (our) problems out in the open in the same way. Those walls of our homes which keep us safe and warm can also divide us.

That is a good reason to reach out with our own lives, in the love that God has given us, to our neighbours who have less. Because together we have so much more, even the kingdom of God.

Amen