Churches responding to rough sleeping
The recent rough sleeping figures confirm what most people probably already knew, that homelessness is on the rise. While the annual street counts only give a snap shot of what is of course a much larger issue, in the year to autumn 2015 the number of people seen sleeping on the street on one night increased by 30%.
I work for Housing Justice, the national Christian voice on housing and homelessness. I got involved in this field in 1991 as a volunteer at the West London Day Centre. I had been aware of rough sleeping from the time I first came to London in the 1970’s, the mostly older guys sleeping under Charing Cross Bridge, and the groups of street drinkers common in various parts of the city. But what drew me to get involved was the shock of seeing young couples sleeping in doorways, following the withdrawal of benefits for under 25’s. So homelessness has always been for me partly about the difficulties of individuals, but also structural. And the rise in homelessness now is mostly structural: the austerity agenda and the shrinking safety net.
Firstly, the caps to housing benefit, especially affecting larger families and under 35’s. Fewer and fewer landlords are now prepared to rent to people on benefits. In fact, many now evict tenants when their tenancy agreement ends, knowing their properties can easily be let to others who can afford higher rents. Cuts to local authority services and voluntary agencies providing advice and assistance also exacerbate the problem.
But the big issue is the acute lack of homes affordable to people on low or even ordinary incomes. As a society we have not given sufficient priority to investment in secure and affordable housing, or in old money, social housing. Unless we tackle this it will continue to be the main obstacle to addressing homelessness.
So the situation is grave, but what are Christians and churches able to do? Well, prayer is a good start: for people in housing need, including those made poor by the cost of housing. But as James tells us, the calling is to both faith and action.
Thankfully there is a growing movement of churches rolling up their sleeves and setting up Night Shelters. Typically, seven or more churches join together to provide overnight accommodation, meals and hospitality for 12 or more guests. Housing Justice has, since 2004, provided a supportive forum for this growth, and has come alongside most of the shelters which have opened over this past decade. In 2013 in response to the needs of this growing network we launched the Housing Justice Quality Mark, a package of good practice standards for new and existing shelters which has been adopted so far by about 30 shelter projects. Last winter there were Church and Community Night Shelters in all London boroughs except Wandsworth and the City of London, and churches in Wandsworth are now working on one for next year.
Of course shelters are not suitable for everyone, and some homeless people need the higher care and support offered by hostels. But if more emergency beds were available via shelters and other church initiatives throughout the year no one would have to sleep rough in London or around the UK even for one night. This is surely a desirable and achievable goal in a country with the fifth largest economy in the world?
Housing Justice has also developed a hosting project for destitute migrants and refugees in London. Working with churches and others there is now a pool of over 40 hosts, willing to offer spare rooms to people while their asylum or immigration case is being taken forward. London Hosting is being developed in partnership with NACCOM, Praxis and others.
And even the deepest structural issue is addressed as churches develop new affordable housing using their own land and property. Our Faith in Affordable Housing guide is designed especially for churches considering redevelopment options. And of course individuals can invest their savings ethically, for example with organisations such as Green Pastures, the London Missional Housing Bond or our own Just Housing savings account.
Please get in touch if we can help you or your church in any of these ways.