In the paper, I argue that Christian theology, especially the themes of grace and truth, can help us understand some of the contemporary issues within homelessness and discern the right response for churches and Christian organisations. I conclude that we need to avoid the damaging polarisation of the discussion between local authorities and the organisations which provide commissioned services, and churches and appreciate the need for what the council, the voluntary sector and the church can offer. I believe that this will be the best way to reduce homelessness and work for transformation in the lives of homeless people.
Issue no.1: When helping people doesn’t help
Just over ten years ago I was the Manager of a sixty-bed cold weather shelter for young homeless people in Soho. The drawbacks of the location quickly became evident because it gave a base which almost encouraged many of our young residents to develop their skills in begging, selling sex and shoplifting. After a few days of opening we would see the residents who had just moved into the shelter begging right outside the hostel and using our duvets to give the impression that they were currently sleeping rough. We used to overhear ‘our’ residents telling stories of their difficulties about ‘not being able to afford any of the hostels round here’ and that ‘no one would help them’ to people who stopped to talk with them. Often the passers-by listened with real concern to the story they were told and would hand over cash to the residents. The only people who really benefited from this exchange were Soho’s many crack and heroin dealers.
The ease of getting money through begging definitely undermined the positive work we were trying to do. I remember vividly the response of one honest and eloquent young person who we were urging to stay in one evening and get involved in an event we had organised. As he was leaving he turned and said to me “Listen right, I’ll tell you what – if you get members of the public to walk through the hostel lounge and drop fivers and pound coins in my lap – then I’ll stay in”.
These are just snapshots of the tragi-comic scenarios that occur within the largely hidden world of homelessness. It displays the complexity of compassion and how good intentions of generous people really can be destructive rather than helpful. This was not a situation where the ends justified the means or where the young people could almost be praised for their shrewd thinking. No, in reality this actually bred further cynicism and depression in those young people because many were ashamed of what they were doing: they knew they were profiting from the naivety and kindness of others. As a hostel we had to quickly recognise the risk that we could be actually empowering our residents to live in a more destructive way.
There is no doubt that many members of the public were trying to help these young people – but what they were doing was not actually helping them. In many ways the problem was one of truth – because the young people were actually presenting a false picture of their situation. They presented a case that the money would go towards food or a hostel bed – when actually it was going on drugs. It was not that they did not have high levels of need – in fact almost all of them were profoundly damaged and disadvantaged young people who needed a high degree of support and help. But out on the street they could easily receive the last thing they needed – an incentive to remain in the downward spiral of addiction and helplessness.
Issue no.2: The gap between professional homeless agencies and church-based activism
Homelessness is just one area of social care where there are tensions between the larger state funded organisations and smaller community based initiatives. Within the homeless field well-established organisations are commissioned by local authorities to run larger hostels, coordinate outreach teams and the larger day centres. Increasingly they are also contracted to address wider issues of ‘street life’ activity and associated anti-social behaviour.
The churches and smaller community agencies run services such as soup runs, drop in sessions at church halls and lunch clubs and a wide range of more informal support services. One of the most significant areas is the Churches night-shelter initiative where seven churches in a local area offer overnight accommodation for one night a week each. In recent years this has grown at an incredible rate and is now operating in over 20 London boroughs as well as across the country.
The problem that is apparent is that there is a gap between these two which is, probably now more than ever, in danger of widening even further. The larger agencies are closer to the local authorities agenda because they are contracted to them. Some local authorities, most notably Westminster City Council (WCC), where rough sleeping is most prolific, monitor very tightly how their commissioned services are run and how their resources are used. There is a far greater pressure on many charities to endorse and reinforce the perspective of the local authority than ever before.
Especially within Westminster, churches and smaller agencies are increasingly seen as part of the problem – there is the view that their unfocussed work undermines the coordinated efforts of the councils and their commissioned agencies. One example is the issue of soup runs where for over ten years now there have been attempts made to reduce the large numbers of groups still coming into the West End to offer food despite the reduction in rough sleepers during that time. The efforts to coordinate the work and reduce duplication have had mixed results. As one staff member at WCC commented in frustration at a meeting I was at recently “the lack of progress with soup runs is rapidly driving me towards atheism!”.
From the other side, the Churches can easily view the commissioned agencies with suspicion – that they are part of a government agenda to clean up the streets for tourism, downplay numbers sleeping rough and corral people in against their will. Rumours have been circulating for years about the ‘clamp down’ that is just around the corner and the conspiracy theories have been turbo-charged by the Olympics and the Mayor’s commitment to ending rough sleeping by 2012.
One of the drivers of the gap that emerges between the two sides, especially in Westminster, is the tendency of both sides to lapse into a caricaturing of each other. The larger agencies and local authorities can give the impression that the churches are simply naïve do-gooders, locked in an ‘old school’ approach which is simply out of date and inappropriate.
On the other side the churches believe the larger agencies have sold out to the lure of government funding. Emboldened by what is seen as an opportunity to make a prophetic stand against the powerful they can portray themselves as the compassionate ‘goodies’ standing up for the poor against the corporate ‘baddies’. Each side can be in danger of gravitating towards differing poles of harsh enforcement and indiscriminate compassion.
This gap needs bridging. Why? Because the gap does no good to the actual people who need to remain at the centre of this issue – the homeless people we are seeking to help.
The need for ‘theology done on the run’
In different ways most of my working life has been about managing these kinds of tensions in practical ways – whether as a Key Worker, as Manager of various hostels or now as Director of a homelessness organisation. However in this paper I want to use some simple theological concepts as a lens and a compass for how we should act.
I think theology is a great resource to help us bridge this damaging gap. I realise that even mentioning theology runs a risk – the very term itself may cause many activists, whether Christian or not, to switch off. Surely theology is the last thing we need – surely it smacks of narrow dogma, arcane debates and irrelevance?
Well, sometimes it does. But that does not mean it should.
We need the kind of Christian thinking that the founder of Centrepoint, Rev. Kenneth Leech, describes as ‘back street theology, theology done on the run’ – theology which is done in the heat of practice and not in detached academia. This is theology which overtly integrates beliefs about God with how we live and treat others. It is powerful because truth is found when we bring together orthodoxy (right belief) with orthopraxis (right action). I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he told the Pharisees: “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matt 9:13) – he was not telling them to go and read more books but learn to live mercifully and discover the truth of scripture for real. We cannot get away from the basic challenge that Jesus calls us to follow him. Faith is much more than mental assent – the Christian faith demands to be put into practice.
In talking about theology, we need to acknowledge the interesting historical factor that most homelessness agencies, whether large or small, have Christian roots. The Salvation Army and Connection at St Martin’s are obvious examples but fewer people realise the extent to which organisations like Centrepoint and Shelter were also established by committed Christians. This historical connection provides an opportunity today to show the continuing relevance of Christian theology as a lens and a compass to guide our practice.
If we are to do this, we need to show a confidence and courage to speak publicly about our faith and argue its relevance. Sadly, this willingness is too often absent among Christian social activists. As US social activist Jim Wallis says ‘faith is always personal, but never private’. Christians believe that good theology marks the road to true transformation, hope and wholeness for all people. In this age of increasing ignorance about the tenets of Christianity, it is vital that Christians live out their faith publicly rather than settling for the deathly cosiness of private beliefs expressed in sanctified settings.
I am no academic theologian and what I share may be rather holey rather than holy. But after briefly outlining the importance of grace and truth in Christian theology, I want to put these themes to work on some of the specific challenges we face as providers of services for homeless people.
The grace and truth of Jesus
In the first chapter of John’s gospel there is one of the most famous passages in scripture which testifies to the incarnation of God among his people: ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). The Apostle John had experienced a close personal friendship with Jesus and he chose these two words to sum up his qualities: grace and truth.
It is important to state that when we speak of grace and truth we are not simply discussing metaphysical concepts or abstract ideas. Christians believe that the incarnation means that God’s grace and truth have been demonstrated in history: in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus our faith centres on someone who lived, interacted with others and formed a community.
The grace of Jesus
Jesus embodied grace through what he taught and how he lived. He told stories of grace – a rebellious son who wasted his father’s fortune but when he returned home but was greeted with a party rather than a punishment. Also of a foreigner who risked his life to care for another across the racial and religious divides. He spoke of those who were considered the least in his society actually coming first in God’s estimations. In addition to all his teaching, his example was even clearer – choosing those considered outcasts to join his group of followers, by touching those considered unclean, by breaking the religious codes to heal the disabled and helping them re-join the community. Though innocent, Jesus went to his death as a sacrifice for all and offered grace even to those who put him to death: ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23:34). Jesus’ life and message had grace at its very core.
Also, the rest of the New Testament’s teaching is clear that grace – God’s unearned love, forgiveness and acceptance – is at the very centre of the gospel. This is why it is good news. God has acted within history to redeem all people, to offer another chance to everyone to be a part of the new world that God is creating. Grace has rightly been described as the best thing Christians have to share. This is what led the early church to show such care for widows and orphans and to live as a radical community of inclusion and compassion. And this is what has led so many Christians down the centuries to work with the most marginalised and destitute people in their societies.
The truth of Jesus
Although Jesus’ message was full of grace, it is wrong to portray him as meek and mild. The grace he embodied cannot be re-cast as simply mild tolerance or uncritical acceptance of everything. His message contained a sharp edge of truth about the need for radical change: ‘I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again’ (John 3:3). Jesus’ warning to his disciples that his message would bring conflict and division – ‘I did not come to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34) – was borne out throughout his life and beyond into the life of the Church.
Jesus described himself as ‘the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6) and continually began sentences with the phrase ‘I tell you the truth…’ (I counted him using this phrase 28 times in John’s Gospel alone). One of his hallmarks was the authority with which he taught, an authority which the crowds marvelled at but which so outraged the religious elite. But Jesus had sharp words not only to those who opposed him but also to those who followed him, castigating the disciples for their fixation on status and their lack of understanding. So much of Jesus’ teachings focus in on the need for basic transformation: for people to turn from self-centredness, retribution and an obsession with status and material comfort and instead embrace generosity, justice, simplicity and dependence on God.
In the person of Jesus grace and truth are synthesised and cannot be separated. A great succinct example is in the two-sentences he says to the woman caught in adultery who had avoided being stoned to death: ‘Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin’ (John 8:11). The way of Jesus is neither easy acceptance nor narrow judgementalism.
Jesus gives this simple summary of the route to wholeness and transformation ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8: 31-32). Instead of religious rules and rituals that hinder and restrict – the truth of Jesus is a truth that confronts reality and brings a freedom that enables people to live life to the full.
How is this relevant to working with homeless people?
Over the long term, all pastoral work with vulnerable and needy people must contain a blend of grace along with a holding to truth. The following list of tensions display the two sides which often require careful blending in providing support to people with complex needs:
Emphasis on grace Emphasis on truth
Unconditional acceptance Enforcement of rules
Giving another chance Maintenance of boundaries
Showing compassion Administering justice
Providing support and care Challenging and empowering
Upholding legal rights Encouraging personal responsibility
Voluntary and charitable Professional and statutory services
These phrases represent a ‘dialectical tension’ that needs to be continually grappled with – and will always be affected by context and situations of individuals. It is not, and never can be, a split dichotomy between the two because all sustainable and effective work will involve some degree of both sides. It is unrealistic to think that work with homeless people can simply be sustained working from the left hand side of the chart or from the right.
Acknowledging the destructive potential of grace detached from truth
Some of the criticisms of Christian work with homeless people is that too much of the activity focuses on giving free meals, free accommodation, love and acceptance which can exist outside of the rest of the support being given to this person. It can be in danger of running counter to other agencies’ emphasis on encouraging and empowering them to face reality and take responsibility. If there are multiple places where people can get ‘a second chance’ it can lead to people regularly being ‘saved’ without ever having to face a challenge about what they need to do about their situation. Also, if churches do not coordinate or communicate about the support they give then this particular person can go from place to place and simply be maintained in the situation they are in. In this way we can see how grace, when it becomes too detached from truth, can actually be destructive and damaging, rather than liberating and healing.
Pastoral care within the congregations of many churches frequently faces the challenge of how to maintain care and support to vulnerable people and avoid someone with a high degree of need ‘burning out’ compassionate members of the congregation. Coordination of support and sharing information is often the way to best support and include vulnerable people. This kind of planning and communication does nothing to reduce the grace shown – on the contrary it can actually strengthen it and sustain a long-term approach.
There is also the danger that completely open-access services actually create demand within groups of people who are undoubtedly needy but are not actually homeless. Fifteen years ago, I was working in a 140-bed long stay hostel in Hackney and when Crisis at Christmas opened, a large number of residents would book in for a festive holiday. Crisis was full of enthusiastic volunteers doing great work but the popular perception that all of those who turned up were current rough sleepers was more myth than reality. It is so positive that since those days Crisis now work in a far more coordinated way with other agencies.
We have to remember that the term ‘homeless’ is a powerful one and draws charitable and voluntary resources like few other needs. We have to be aware of incentive for vulnerable people to associate themselves with this need in order to qualify for the help offered.
Specific contemporary issues within homelessness
Being more specific, I believe the balance of grace and truth is relevant to the following contemporary issues within homelessness:
When someone begs from someone else they in effect start a verbal or non-verbal conversation with the potential donor. In the UK today I would argue that in the vast majority of situations, this is a conversation which is not based on truth. Often the premise presented is that the person begging needs money for food or a hostel when in fact it is virtually always going to be spent on drugs or alcohol. Sometimes this is a silent conversation aided by a cardboard sign – but over the last 10 years it has been common for many people to beg on trains using an actual conversation – in the form of speech to the carriage explaining their need for money. Often they describe the need for money to ‘get into a hostel’. I have spoken to countless of these people and when I ask them which hostel they always refer to hostels where I know that entry is not dependent on paying cash. As I have said, they are in need but what is being presented is simply not true. And because it’s not true it can never be a step towards transformation and instead simply helps maintain the situation of physical and moral destitution. I had a long conversation with someone who unsuccessfully begged from me at Clapham Junction a while ago who by the end of our talk urged me never to give to anyone begging. He said simply ‘Mate, I’ll tell you, it all goes on heroin and crack’.
Soup runs have been controversial for a number of years now due to many issues including the following: a) the belief that there are far too many soup runs for the numbers of rough sleepers; b) that they perpetuate street culture and create anti-social behaviour; c) that they are often conducted by groups who live considerably outside of central London and who have little knowledge of the range of services that are working with homeless people and d) that the work is driven more by the fierce commitment of the volunteers to this relatively glamorous form of activism than the need itself.
I am sympathetic to these concerns and have always encouraged churches engaged in this work to switch their efforts away from street services in central London to supporting vulnerable people in their own communities.
The street-based nature of these services gives the clear impression that they are for rough sleepers but of course the recipients are far more diverse than that. The continuance of soup runs perpetuates the impression that the street is where help, generosity and kindness can be accessed and this inevitably draws a wide range of people who are in real need of these things. I think it would be far more positive for soup runs to be based within churches where social and recreational activities would be more effective.
Also though, truth easily gets lost as users of the soup runs tell stories to the volunteers which emphasise the lack of help they are receiving from elsewhere to affirm the need for the soup run. It was very good to be at a recent Housing Justice Soup Run Forum which was attended by the Westminster commissioned street Outreach Managers for Westminster from Connection at St Martin’s and The Passage, who could inform the volunteers of the various soup runs about the care plans and work that was actually in place for a number of the users of the soup runs. It countered the perception among some soup run volunteers that many of their users had no options for housing and that ‘nothing was being done’ for them.
Sharing information and coordination between agencies (CHAIN database)
The CHAIN database is an on-line system where different homeless agencies can upload information on the case work that is happening for clients and then aspects of this information is available to others. It means that it is far easier now for agencies to access key information about clients and ensure that duplication and confusion are reduced and resources are used in a more targeted way.
In effect this is a mechanism for truth – it ensures that the help that the person has been given is available to others. I think that Christian agencies should warmly endorse this kind of progress because it helps build the kind of unity that improves the services offered. Also it can help staff challenge clients when they insist that ‘nothing is being done for them’ when actually it is their behaviour or some other blockage that is the key issue.
The No Second Night Out initiative
This is a recently announced initiative driven by the London Delivery Board of the Greater London Authority (GLA) which is driving the work to meet the Mayor’s target to reduce rough sleeping to zero by 2012. Its aim is to ensure that that new rough sleepers do not spend more than one night out on the streets. This will be done by targeting and coordinating resources even more tightly because it will work by ensuring that each rough sleeper is given the offer of a service which they will be strongly urged to accept. Communication and coordination among agencies will be tighter than ever and any remaining vagueness about the plans for each rough sleeper will be reduced as much as possible.
The significance of this initiative is that it could alter the perception of rough sleeping. At the moment, rough sleeping is widely described as a ‘scandal’ by politicians in power and there is a willingness to accept that somehow society has failed these people. However if resources are organised in such a way that the authorities can be confident that everyone sleeping rough does have an offer of a route off the streets then it is far easier to state clearly that these people are choosing to sleep rough.
In a sense this is a key moment in this whole discussion. This initiative tightens the noose of ‘truth’ around each person’s situation. It provides a challenge as to how churches and smaller agencies should respond because the authorities will certainly want the churches on board. If the system works well this could be a great opportunity to really prevent new rough sleeping from becoming entrenched into a street lifestyle but if it is not well managed it could be a harsh and blunt system. As with so much in the care professions, a huge amount depends on the management of the whole process. I believe it is important that churches offer support to this initiative and give it a chance to work but alongside this monitor closely what is happening to the rough sleepers they are in contact with. In 6 months we should be able to develop an initial assessment of how the system is working and be able to give clear feedback to the powers that be.
The growth of the Church’s Night-shelter initiatives across London and beyond are further testimony to the impressive commitment that so many Christians and churches have towards evolving new services for homeless people. As already mentioned, the commissioned agencies however can be frustrated if they are working intensively with a client who then disappears for 3 months into a church Night-shelter. There have been examples where this puts back the long term steps they were working towards and leaves the person back at square one at the end of the winter.
The other area of concern is provision within their borough over which they have little control and the associated concern that the service will bring more homeless people into the borough. This highlights the sensitivity that local authorities have around the sharp geographical focus to their responsibility. It is a geographical focus which is generally not shared by churches and community groups. For example, I live in Streatham and feel part of the community of Streatham – but I feel far less ‘part’ of the London Borough of Lambeth in which Streatham is situated. The London boroughs are merely an administrative reality for many rather than representing any cohesive community. Yet when it comes to responsibility for homeless people, the connection someone has to a borough is a huge issue for the local authority as it greatly increases their level of responsibility. Understandably, local authorities are desperate to avoid attracting any homeless people into their patch who do not have a connection with that borough.
I think that Church night-shelters have a great role to play in meeting the needs of homeless people – especially those who are unemployed foreign nationals who have no recourse to public funds. But again, I would urge that all shelter schemes seek to work as closely as they can with the established agencies and ensure a good and effective flow of communication to ensure that they enhance and complement the year-round work of other agencies.
Conclusion and recommendations for discussion…
It is worth reinforcing the clear reality that the Church has a major role to play in combating homelessness. A member of the rough sleepers team at WCC said to me that ‘What the churches do is such a strong ingredient in the overall recipe to address rough sleeping, it’s important that they do it right.’
We need to have confidence in what we can do – the kind of confidence that allows us to critique our own practice with humility, adapt it as needed and be willing to build bridges with other agencies and acknowledge the ways which our aims and purposes overlap.
In order to be as specific as possible, I will end with the following recommendations for further discussion:
- We should not allow theology to become detached or overly academic. Christian homeless agencies need to be doing the kind of theology which is of real use to underpin and guide their social activism. Good theology can provide a strong root to sustain and nourish the work.
- Effective and sustained work with homeless people will always need to blend the elements of truth and grace. This synthesis is embodied in the term ‘tough love’ where we are willing to offer care and support but also challenge the person and not to allow low expectations of what they can do to dominate the culture of our help.
- We should encourage all initiatives which help the truth emerge about what someone’s real situation is. Christians have nothing to fear from the truth – in fact helping people face the reality of their situation, the mistakes they have made and exploring the best path to take can be the most helpful thing we can do for them. At a deeper level, the message of God’s grace is that no one actually has anything to fear from the truth – because in God’s eyes, no one is beyond forgiveness and redemption.
- Churches and smaller agencies need to affirm the good work that the government and commissioned agencies are doing and see their engagement and contribution to this work as mission. There are significant numbers of Christians working in local authorities and large agencies and their work should not be secularised. We have to also acknowledge that many of the council’s concerns are driven by the legitimate concerns of local people about issues such as rough sleeping, street drinking and begging. We cannot see our service to homeless people detached from the context of the wider community. We need to ensure that there are effective bridges between churches and agencies and avoid the polarisation of the discussion.
- I would urge churches not to duplicate the work of commissioned agencies but work as closely as they can with them. Instead of duplicating we should consider ‘what can we do better than anyone else?’ The levels of volunteers that churches can muster for activities are the envy of the sometimes erroneously titled ‘voluntary sector’ (which is dominated by paid staff) and there is a wealth of ‘added value’ churches could offer to the work of hostels and homeless charities. We could offer to run recreational activities such as quiz nights and film discussion evenings or in other ways such as helping people resettle and offering befriending and mentoring services.
- Lastly, a personal interest of mine is how churches can offer distinctively Christian activities which explicitly offer the opportunity to explore the truth and grace of the gospel to the people we serve. There is a wide range of different ways this could be done such as Chaplaincy, spirituality discussion groups, Alpha or other courses, as well as the basic opportunity to participate in the life of the church. I think the tide is turning as we put aside the baggage that remains from the ‘singing for your soup’ era of Christian work with homeless people. We need to be more confident than that and creatively explore the opportunities to integrate what we believe in explicit ways.
Martin Luther King, who spent so long both in grassroots activism as well as in discussions with his government about justice wrote this: ‘The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority’.
I hope and pray that the Church in the UK will always display its faith in God through the way it offers grace and truth to those on the margins. Where possible, we should always seek to work as well as we can with others to fulfil shared the aims of bringing hope and transformation to people who end up sleeping on the streets of our rich but needy nation.
Jon Kuhrt has been Executive Director of Social Work for the West London Mission since July 2010. Previously he worked for Bridge Housing Association and managed various hostels for young homeless people for Centrepoint. He spent eight years as Director of Community Mission at Livability leading the organisation’s work with churches to develop social action initiatives and co-wrote The Just People course. He also served as a Trustee of UNLEASH prior to its merger with Housing Justice. He lives in Streatham with his wife Nikki and their three young children and they are all members of Streatham Baptist Church.