I was interested in seeing a meme with the inscription “Open our city churches to the homeless” on Facebook and it got me thinking …
I should start by making the rather pedantic point that the Church is not the same as a church building and that there are many good Christian folk that are part of the Church and do a lot for the community that do not have their own building, meeting in people’s homes and hired halls etc. The other point is one I have already made that churches do open their doors to all sorts of community activities already and it makes a huge difference.
A church opening up their premises to the homeless is nothing new. After all, is this not what the mediaeval monks did, often taking seriously the notion by taking in and providing hospitality to homeless and other needy folk they were doing so to Christ himself? But, and correct me if I am wrong, churches opening their doors to the homeless on a significant scale is a relatively new phenomenon in these modern times. In the past few years seven churches in my own town, Southend, have done so with a degree of success.
Some might say this needs to happen a lot more and there needs to be less restrictions but having seen how this works first hand and being involved in one such operation I can see some of the challenges. Even before we talk of churches being turned into a homeless shelter on a semi formal basis, it has often struck me that church buildings do act as a magnet for some homeless folk. There is one church in the town that has an exceptionally large porch, which seems on the face of it an ideal venue for homeless people to sleep. I recall a few years back police being involved in a moving on operation. If people simply slept and moved on one could imagine with give and take both sides this could have worked. But as often is the case the few spoil it for the many and given that church ran nursery groups etc., it was disconcerting to see drug paraphernalia and evidence of smoking, drinking and anti- social behavior.
I say this by way of an introduction to why making church buildings more widely available to the homeless there are things that make if less than straight forward. The first is the building itself. Some are multi-purpose and is where the church meets for services etc. and there is work to be done to transform a homeless shelter into a place of worship and back again. As it happens, all the churches that open their doors to the homeless in Southend have separate halls for the religious stuff and the social stuff. But there are halls like the one I manage where that is it. It doubles up as a dormitory and a café, plus a few basic toilets with washbasins and a kitchen and nothing more – no place for example to have private conversation and for dealing with altercations and upsets among guests, no suitable place for dogs to stay and no extra space to go much beyond the twenty sleepers we say we can serve. As for segregating the sexes, we can’t and men and women sleep in the same hall.
And then what happens when a guest does kick off, chooses not to follow basic rules to do with respect and health and safety or turns up under the influence of alcohol or drugs? All these things must be squarely faced and while most guests fit in nicely to the restrictions placed on us all, you only need one that doesn’t to make it virtually untenable for the rest. All of which needs to be managed carefully (and is) and requires volunteers to give up their time to make it happens (which is not always as easy as it sounds). Even for churches that have extra room and modern design, can keep separate eating, communal and sleeping areas, have the luxury of showers and can enjoy modern, fully equipped facilities, this is a challenge. Maybe future buildings should be done with the homeless in mind and even more attention to the needs of the community?
My answer to the challenge made above is part of the mission of the church is to serve the homeless, and come to that all sorts of other needy groups. But when building is concerned it also needs to serve other activities e.g. those that involve children. By all means open buildings to the homeless, but also recognize limitations etc.