I had a job cleaning in central London in 1990, which involved being on a main street by 7 a.m.
The extent of the rough sleeping – homeless people who slept or lived outside – was shocking. Three to four people slept under almost every doorway, and a few roads felt like a homeless village.
I went onto study social work at Hull University, volunteered each week at a homeless ministry and wrote my dissertation on the Rough Sleeper’s Initiative (1990-93) launched by Margaret Thatcher’s government – the first major policy initiative focused on addressing street homelessness.
After this, I worked in a 140-bed homeless hostel and later managed emergency hostels for young homeless people.
Today, I work as the director of social work for West London Mission, which supports homeless people and marginalized members of society.
I have engaged this issue primarily from a practical perspective. But I have always been interested in the political and theological issues that are connected up with homelessness.
The image of a rough sleeper is powerful and moving, creating powerful feelings of distress, anger, sympathy and bewilderment.
Homelessness captures something raw and fundamental about social breakdown.
The number of people sleeping rough is a social barometer indicating wider levels of poverty and exclusion.
It could be described as an icon of poverty, bringing together political failure and personal tragedy.
Homelessness is undoubtedly highly political. In the late 1980s, a Tory minister reputedly said, “The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you came out of the opera?”
Yet, the government could not ignore homelessness then and it cannot be avoided now.
Because it is also a theological issue, the church has been indelibly involved in this issue for centuries, and the majority of homeless charities have their roots in the church.
One homeless person featured on a BBC3 documentary said, “Christians get a lot of bad press, but for homeless people, they are the salt of the earth.”
There are at least three ingredients that lead to someone becoming homeless:
1. At its best, society has a safety net that can support people through hard times, but this net is developing more and more holes.
People are more vulnerable than ever, due to lack of affordable housing, economic downturn and austerity, benefit sanctions, minimal support when leaving an institution (prison, army, hospital), and the insecurity of zero hours contracts and split shifts.
The most significant development in recent years is the pan-European poverty, which is affecting homelessness in London as many people come from the European Union to London for work.
We had a group of Romanians sleeping on the steps of the church, who would wake up early, cycle off to work around 6 a.m. and come back at night to sleep.
They caused no trouble and their situation is a perfect illustration of material poverty: Often they are choosing to sleep rough and send money back home to alleviate poverty back home.
2. Poverty of relationships
When I managed two different emergency hostels for homeless young people, I saw many issues that led to their circumstances, but one issue towered above the rest: the impact of broken relationships within their families.
Below the presenting issues of addiction and mental health were stories of family chaos and the absence of stability within the home. The primary tragedy they shared was not material but relational.
Just as material poverty creates insecurity, so does a poverty of relationships. Yet there is often reluctance to connect poverty to relationship breakdown despite the close link that so obviously exists, perhaps from a desire to avoid blaming families, especially those who already have so many challenges.
We have been more comfortable talking about individuals who have “rights” and how through deprivation have been denied what they are entitled to, rather than talking about how relationships are fundamental to identity.
Purely “rights-based” approaches are too individualistic and do not have enough appreciation of where people find true meaning and fulfillment – through loving others and being loved.
We cannot get away from the importance of relationships.
A poverty of identity
3. Every week it seems that reports are issued concerning the rise in mental health conditions and especially anxiety and depression.
The rise in mental health issues are symptoms of a vulnerability that many people have around their inner well-being.
For homeless people, their experiences of exclusion and trauma are both a root cause and an ongoing reason for their mental fragility.
In response, the homelessness sector has focused in recent years on the issues of resilience.
How can we build resilience in vulnerable people so that setbacks or problems don’t cause an unraveling of their whole situation? How can homeless people feel in control of their own journey of recovery and understand more fully what they need to live a fulfilled life?
These are the three faces of poverty and how they relate to homelessness.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. This column is adapted from a manuscript of Kuhrt’s Hugh Price Hughes Lecture presented at Hinde Street Methodist Church in London. It previously appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.
Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series. Part two is available here.