A place to call home: empowerment and homelessness | Pat Clarke [ANVIL vol 34 issue 2]

Most of us are like the rest of us.

Portrait photo of the author
Pat Clarke is the manager of the Homeless Hub at Bardsley Youth Project in Coventry, walking with and supporting homeless young people as they navigate the complexities of finding a home, equipping it and keeping it.

This is a saying I heard in a small church on the Isle of Wight many years ago and it is so true.

All people are of equal significance to God. Scripture affirms this and yet we have a tendency to see the “us” and “them”; “vulnerable” and “non-vulnerable”; “needy” and “not needy”. The truth is we are all “us” to God irrespective of any factor that is challenging us at the moment – all of us are needy or vulnerable in different ways.

Our classification of people according to how we see them needs to be constantly challenged, both within ourselves and in the wider community. This is particularly true of people who are displaced, who do not have a place to call home. The very label “homeless” conjures up in most people’s minds the rough sleeper who needs to be helped off the streets – someone who is very vulnerable and needy with a multitude of problems that we personally cannot help with, and indeed this is the image portrayed in the media. The response to this overt need is usually almsgiving as people are touched by compassion – food, money, clothing, bedding and some shelter. A short-term response to immediate need, the giver and receiver relationship in action and a practical way people feel they can help.

In reality, most homeless people do have a roof over their heads, but it is not the roots put down that most of us think of as home. For example, in Coventry at the moment there are 220 families living in hotel rooms waiting for housing, the whole family living in one room with no cooking facilities. There are over 250 young people under 25 living in hostels.

Computer says no

"It is beneath human dignity to lose one’s individuality and become a mere cog in the machine." 
– Mahatma Gandhi

As housing services find their resources increasingly stretched, many homeless people are turned away from help. A homeless person is often left feeling that they are just a number – a task that needs to be solved before moving on to the next. This is because in the process of getting help they will have sat across the desk from a series of people asking questions and typing information into a computer as their homelessness status is assessed and the help they can be given, if any, is determined. At the end of all that they may get just this response – “The computer says no.”

This can be a very isolating experience as hope is gradually stripped away, as each organisation – whether due to its limitations, duties or lack of resources – cannot provide help.

Our community says yes.

So, how do we move beyond the compassionate, immediate response and include those who feel hopeless and excluded?

When we meet displaced people the cause of homelessness may not be obvious, and it is only by building a relationship with an individual that the main problem may come to light. After many years of belonging to our community, messing up regularly leading to a pattern of serial homelessness, Sam (not his real name) eventually admitted that he had a heavy cannabis habit. Whenever his benefits came through, he would immediately spend the bulk of it on drugs. But when seen at our project, Sam was never under the influence so we had no idea. His trust in the project and church and the way he was accepted as an individual meant he eventually felt safe to admit his problem and get support to tackle it. Sam knew we were with him for the long haul.

One thing as Christians that we are clearly called to do is to live as community, as family together with all its messiness and give and take. This is very empowering for everyone as they feel valued just as they are and feel that they can contribute as well as receive. Trust is built up as we are all included through thick and thin, accepted despite the mistakes we make, loved and affirmed. Our community believes that showing the love of God is more important than telling the love of God. Belonging to our community should not be a means to make “them” become “us”. The agenda should not be evangelism but love.

Loving with an agenda, apart from a desire for each person to be the best they can be, can be very destructive. I came across someone recently who had been to a series of churches to be rejected by each one until she was empowered to change by finding a loving accepting Christian community that journeyed with her through thick and thin no matter what. Rejection was because of an agenda – repentance was expected, or she was loved in order to convert her then was rejected when this did not happen, or she was ignored through fear as she was judged to be too dangerous to be with. Unconditional love is what Christ commands us to do. We need to obey and not worry about the results of our love, just see all people as part of “us” – the us that God loves without exception.

A place to call home

Inclusion is important. Homeless people need to feel they are just like everyone else in the community and not just someone who needs help. For example, we first met Paul (not his real name) when he was 16 and was “sofa surfing”, staying at a variety of friends’ homes. He found it very hard to accept offers of help. He had first been kicked out of home at the age of 14.

Paul had no identity papers. This also meant he could not register as homeless with the council despite being a child. We helped him to sort this out and benefits started to come through, but he continued to struggle with homelessness. The big breakthrough came when he was 18. We asked him to help another young person move into his first flat, and this gave him “permission” to ask for help in return. We discovered that he had significant benefit problems and was living on food given to him by friends and the meals we provided.

Paul now has a room in a shared house. “I can lie down flat to sleep for the first time in two years.” He did his best to continue his education, despite the fact he was often sent away from school for not having the correct uniform or footwear. He was not diagnosed as dyslexic until his final year and left school with no qualifications. With our help, he got into college. He is now, at age 20, in the second year of an apprenticeship, is still one of our regular attendees and volunteers to help others every week.

At Bardsley [Youth Club] there is always a friendly face to talk to and get help. It picks you up as it is a happy and safe place. They are always there.

A place to belong

Another example is Abia (not her real name), a Muslim girl we met when she had been thrown out of home on her twenty-first birthday with only a small bag of belongings. She was turned away by the council as they had no duty to help her. Having nowhere else to go she spent several nights in the rough sleepers’ room at the Salvation Army, a frightening place for anyone, let alone a young woman. We arranged for her to go to Cyrenians, a national charity that helps all homeless people, who gave her a room and helped her claim housing benefit so by night four of being homeless she was in her own room in a shared house. We gave her bed linen, clothing, towels, household goods and food to get her started.

Our relationship with Abia continued as she lost her job, being owed two months’ pay by her employer, who went into liquidation. Her housing benefit stopped and she was evicted from her Cyrenians room due to rent arrears (in hostels the rent is between £150 and £200 per week). To avoid the rough sleepers’ room, one of our trustees put her up and she now has employment and is currently awaiting a place at the YMCA. I asked Abia what she thought about our project and the response was wonderful:

"What would I have done without you, I would have been sleeping on the streets. I have no family now, you are the closest thing I have to home. You actually provide genuine care and help. You moved fast, didn’t hesitate and helped with everything you could. You have respected my background totally and have not been judgemental."

Abia felt that she could not ask at the mosque for help, but our caring acceptance spoke volumes to her about the Christian faith and opened up dialogue and sharing of views. We have learned much from her as we have helped her. We have no idea how God will continue to act in her life but she knows we will always be there for her.

Helping homeless people is rewarding and sometimes hard but it awakens you to your own vulnerability and need and the realisation that everyone is just a few steps away from being in the situations we deal with on a daily basis.

It’s not us and them; it’s “we”.

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