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British Charity Urges Churches to House Vulnerable

It was getting late but Linda decided to try another hotel. Maybe she would have success with this one.

She spoke to someone at the reception desk. They barely looked up before dismissing her, “No, we don’t have any jobs available.” Linda left, disheartened.

She found a doorway and spent the rest of the night watching the nighttime buzz of London peak and then dip as clubbers and workers disappeared home.

This was the first night of many that Linda, fleeing an abusive relationship, would spend on the streets.

For Linda, homelessness led to drinking, prostitution and drug addiction. What hope did she have? Who was going to help her now?

It was stories like Linda’s that made Ed Walker wonder why the church wasn’t doing more to support the homeless and vulnerable.

Returning to live in the United Kingdom after spending nine years working overseas in disaster response, Walker became acutely aware of the often unintentional, but very real, separation of the church and the poor.

“Surely this is not how it should be,” he said. “Churches should be full of vulnerable people.”

One day, while taking his young daughter to a local park, Walker met a guy who had just left prison and had nowhere to go.

“I couldn’t find him anywhere to live,” Walker said. “No churches were doing anything. He had nowhere to go because he had no one to go to – a lot of people experience relational poverty. And yet the church can provide a richness of relationships people have not had before.”

This experience prompted Walker to think and pray about what he should do. He sought advice from his minister, David Whitlock of Bretton Baptist Church in Peterborough.

Whitlock encouraged him to continue to pursue the ideas and dreams that God was seemingly stirring up in Walker’s heart.

And so, with the support of the church, and using up their savings, Walker and his wife bought a house in Peterborough and rented it out to an ex-offender and a man who’d been living in a hostel for eight years.

Bretton Baptist Church helped support the tenants. Soon, more houses were bought, more vulnerable people were given homes and more churches got involved providing mentors, meals, friends and a place for the homeless to belong.

After one year, they had four houses up and running. And Hope into Action, a charity whose vision is to enable churches to house the homeless, was born.

“If we can use the capital in people’s bank accounts, we can unleash a revolution,” Walker said. “Christian wealth can be the answer to the homeless situation in this country. Just imagine what our mighty God could do if we shared our wealth with the poor.”

The model is fairly simple: An investor (an individual, a group or a church) buys a property with the express purpose of renting it out to people who may have little hope of living in a decent home – people coming out of prison, out of rehab, former sex workers, the homeless.

A house is only ever purchased with the full support of a local church, and volunteers from the church provide practical and spiritual support to enable the tenants to thrive in a community again.

Hope into Action takes care of the more specialized needs, such as referrals, benefit applications and needs assessments, provides a key worker, and looks after rent collection.

The first house was opened in 2010, and now Hope into Action has 28 houses in eight cities in partnership with 24 churches.

“We want Christians to use their wealth and share it with the poor,” Walker said. “It’s still a sound investment but it’s also a social investment; it serves the poor and the church long term.”

For Walker, Hope into Action serves two purposes: it transforms the lives of vulnerable people and it closes the gap between the church and the poor.

“Success is both getting people out of church and getting people into church,” Walker said. “When we engage with vulnerable people, we meet Jesus.”

But engaging with vulnerable people can be a risky endeavor. “People who take this on need to prepare for disappointment,” Walker said candidly.

“The concept that people get sorted overnight is a lie; it sets us up for disappointment. At a Hope into Action conference in March, I told the story of two girls who were sharing one of the houses. One got baptized, the other I met in jail recently. It’s tough. It’s part of what we’re calling churches to do,” he said.

With the lows come the highs of seeing lives transformed.

“We want to give churches the belief that they can do this,” Walker said. “At some point in the future we want to go into a church and expect them to run a house for the homeless. Often homeless people go to churches to ask for help and the church refers them to the council; we want it to be the other way round.”

Fiona Spence is a freelance writer and journalist in the United Kingdom. A longer version of this news article first appeared in The Baptist Times of Great Britain – the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @fionas125.