Today, I attended a homelessness symposium organized by a group I have hitherto had very little contact: Housing Justice. Its website write-up declares this to be a “national Christian homelessness charity trying to enable local groups and churches to provide practical help to people in housing need”. While the gathering was small, it was clear that those who attended had more than a passing interest in homelessness and, while I knew some of the attendees, I did not know most of them. It was good to be reminded about the bigger picture, including areas close to Southend, such as Rayleigh and Basildon, and to find out more what is happening in those areas, encouraging others and being encouraged myself.
I was asked to share some of my own thoughts and experience. What follows is an edited and embellished (in the light of what was discussed) version of what I said:
“Ladies and gentlemen, my brief is to talk for 10 minutes about: the local context to the homelessness crisis: what is the situation and what are the needs. An article in Wednesday’s Guardian titled “The homelessness crisis in England: a perfect storm” that begins: “Last year, 112,070 people declared themselves homeless in England – a 26% increase in four years” is pertinent here because it provides plentiful evidence that there is indeed a homelessness crisis. If other suitably qualified persons were to speak on the subject they might say something quite different and that is because we all tend to speak from our own perspective, even when we do our best to try to take in the big picture, but I’ll do my best, even though most of what I know relates to my own area, which is Southend, but firstly I should say what my qualifications are for me to speak with any authority on this subject. I feel by getting involved at the coal face helps to earn us a right to speak God’s message of righteousness to the post-Christian culture in which we live.
Following careers in teaching and IT, I got involved full time in community work around 2001, when I helped to start and run the Growing Together project, which involved various community interested people, particularly from the churches, working with the local council and other statutory and voluntary groups to help people with mental health issues, particularly through the medium of garden therapy. I later helped set up Community-in-Harmony. While its emphasis was running big diversity events, I also got to do research around some of the more marginalized communities in Southend. I worked for the best part of a year with Turning Tides, a neighbourhood management project, which allowed me to work with some of those communities, particularly the homeless and also some of the ethnic minority communities and, pertinent to this discussion, this included destitute asylum seekers, particularly from Zimbabwe, who often had housing needs.
In 2008, I helped to set up Southend Homeless Action Network (SHAN) with its aim to bring various interested organizations together in order to help the homeless. I have also been a Street Pastor for 7 years and when we go out we often meet and in a limited way help homeless people. I have been involved with the Church Winter Night Shelters, including this year managing the one at St. Andrews Church, the SOS group run by the charity Mind – engaging with ethnic minority men often on the edges of society, and a new group called Street Spirit that goes out regularly to engage with and feed and clothe homeless folk. While these days I am retired, one of my main community interests is addressing homelessness and I try to take an interest in all what is going on.
SHAN began partly in response to an invite by the Council to contribute to its Homeless Prevention Strategy. Two things particularly concerned us at the time. Firstly, we were coming across single homeless folk, mostly men but increasingly women, who the Council couldn’t or wouldn’t help. The two agencies these folk were typically signposted to, HARP and CAB, provided help but it was limited. Secondly, the Council had a number of hostels used to house homeless people that were under-utilized despite the obvious need and there were ideas being put forward to sell off some of these. Since we began, we have met every other month and typically get 15-20 people from various agencies attending our meetings. It should be said that the Christian input is significant and we are hosted by Southend Christian Fellowship but we are about working with all faiths and none. We have also put on two conferences – one relating specifically to asylum seekers and the other on how to help the homeless. While SHAN does not initiate projects, it provides help and encouragement to those who do. Its strength is its networking acumen and that it tries to include all who want to help the homeless. For example, SHAN played a part in getting Winter Night Shelter scheme going, bringing together three quite different organizations: Southend Council, HARP and the churches to work together to address a need all parties were agreed on.
Regarding the needs, no one knows for sure all what these are, but they are significant and there is room for all, ideally working in partnership to address them. In recent years, when the Council did rough sleeper counts it came up with around 10, which at the time didn’t make sense as we knew there were a lot more (although that figure is somewhat higher in most recent counts), but no-one really knows the true number. By rough sleeper, I don’t mean just those sleeping in the streets, and wherever there is some shelter: shop doorways, under bridges, derelict or unoccupied buildings, multi-story car parks etc., but we need to also include folk sleeping in tents or cars and those who are referred to as “sofa surfers”, who manage to find a place to stay in a friend’s home, often on a day to day basis. I should also add there are a lot of people we come across who live in pretty dire housing none of us would want to live in.
Regarding the type of person who is homeless, the range is enormous. It could be anyone of us but because of circumstances they find ourselves on the streets without the means to find suitable accommodation. We shouldn’t forget either those coming of care, those people released from prison or psychiatric institutions, those leaving the armed forces, sometimes with post traumatic stress, young people who leave or are thrown out of their homes etc. One scary thing we are seeing is that as more people default on repaying their mortgage this will add pressure to the system. There are some who are asylum seekers without funds, unable to work or claim benefits. Then there are the hard core of folk, often with a mental health or alcohol addiction issues and it is these we typically bump into on the streets. While these folk need accommodation, they also need help, otherwise we could be setting them up to fail. There are some who purport to have a housing need but don’t, e.g. some of the people we come across begging, but even so they do have a need.
In terms of helping the homeless, there is a lot out there by way of help and some of this is identified in the SHAN rough sleeper leaflet, but it doesn’t say all and there are also gaps. The biggest need is finding suitable accommodation. I should say there is a number of folk making a difference who would rather I did not mention them by name. These include a category I describe as social landlords. They take in some of the more problematic clients, often at a loss, because they see it as their human duty to do so, ahead of wanting to maximize profits. There are two folk I know who have just taken over dwellings with a view to house rough sleepers, an organization, St. Saviour’s Housing Association housing homeless folk and the newly formed Community and Asylum Seekers Together (CAST) that is setting up hosting schemes for that category of people who are not allowed to work and cannot claim benefits.
Not only is there a lack of available accommodation, and this has got worse in recent years, even when a homeless person can access housing and other benefits (which of course has been significantly reduced in recent months) often the nature of the issues of many often makes them especially hard to accommodate and what is needed is suitable support. Something I have raised some time ago is the matter of help with rent deposits, as this can be a barrier to getting accommodation. There is lack in other areas such as finding useful things for homeless folk to do in the day, getting back into education, work, and to simply hang out.
Sadly, for many, there is a cycle that however many hand outs and acts of kindness are on offer, until that cycle is broken progress is limited. All need a touch of human kindness of course, to feel valued and to be given the time of day. This type of intervention often goes unrecognized and sometimes the people we help will let us down, but my take is that giving in this way often has its own rewards. There is a need to pace ourselves to prevent burn out and having to deal with annoying people, often in high positions, who deny there is a problem or find excuses not to do anything, and those who are comfortably well off who prefer not to recognize there is a need out there and turn a blind eye. My advice in a nutshell is to be wise, be calm, be winsome, pace yourself – you cannot solve the problems of the world – Jesus never did, collect data when you can as to what is the real situation (even though it will get twisted – but truth will win out eventually) and do what needs to be done because there is an even greater reward. Some folk, who care about homelessness, don’t believe in heaven, and they have my respect. I am usually happy to work with them but I won’t be politically correct.
Perhaps the biggest need, and I can share it here because this is a Christian gathering, is to find God. Many of my homeless friends are surprisingly spiritually minded. It is not that our help has to come with strings attached or ignore the practical issues, but the reality is that until that aching void in the human heart is filled it is going to be difficult to get people to make much needed changes rather than patching over a problem. My dream is to do something along the lines of what General William Booth did – take care of material needs, whisk some of the more problematic homeless folk to a safe place, maybe in the country away from some of the distractions and temptations of the city – like Hadleigh Farm, save their souls and get them meaningfully working and helping them in dealing with the demons, whether drink, depression or whatever, and then return them to “normal” living at the right time but with the compassionate support network on hand to turn to as and when needed.”
“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” Isaiah 58:6,7