Homelessness and the three faces of poverty

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This is the text of the Hugh Price Hughes Lecture given by Jon Kuhrt, 9th June 2015

Introduction

I used to be a member of a church near King’s Cross, London which met in a converted pub which the Church of England had bought and had planted a congregation into. The church was largely made up of young people in their 20s and one initiative we started was a community project called ‘Decorating and Gardening’ – or D&G for short.

D&G aimed to do practical jobs – as long as they were either decorating or gardening – for local people in need. Because of the initials we borrowed the Dolce and Gabanna logo. We never heard from their lawyers.

The first person we had referred to us was a man called Terry who was known to another local church and who lived in a flat on a large estate just off the Caledonian Rd. Terry had recently come out of prison and had multiple addictions, including crack, heroin and alcohol. We went to his flat and decorated two of his rooms and he was very grateful.

To our genuine surprise, Terry then regularly started turning up at our church on Sunday evenings. Being honest, it was very challenging. Terry would frequently interrupt the services, especially right in the middle of prayers or times of silence and launch into long monologues about how no cared about him – although he did not quite use that language. We found out that he had been banned from every other local day centre or service – it was only the church and the local street drinker’s network who maintained a relationship with him.

Frequently we had to escort Terry from the building. There were many, many flashpoints, incidents and arguments. But, we did enforce boundaries and made it clear that interrupting services was not acceptable. Often he left and then came back in for coffee afterwards. The church maintained the relationship and many people did their best to show kindness and hospitality to him over the coming years.

I think just about the most generous thing I have ever witnessed was when a couple in the church decided to invite him to their wedding along with many others from the congregation. He was so chuffed and got dressed up to the nines and – to everyone’s immense relief – behaved impeccably.

I will never forget a time when I went round to his flat and being introduced to 4 of his friends. As we chatted, it became increasingly awkward before Terry told me that they wanted to cook up their heroin and wanted me to leave but they did not know how to say it. But before I went they asked me to pray for them and all sat holding hands while I prayed. I will never forget the visceral grip with which they held my hand as I prayed – a grip almost certainly increased by the need for their drug – but also illustrative of even deeper needs.

Why I am sharing this story? After all, Terry was actually not actually homeless – he had a flat. Well, there are 3 reasons.

Firstly, his situation illustrated vividly the different faces of poverty that I am going to talk about tonight. Terry was materially poor – living on a tough estate with little income – but his issues were compounded by even more significant issues around his relationships with others, and his identity, his relationship with himself.

Secondly, it illustrates the special role the church can play with people who are homeless and on the margins.

And thirdly, although I have worked within the homeless field for a long time, Terry was not someone I got to know as a ‘client’ through my professional work. He was a neighbour, a fellow church goer and in some ways a friend. The boundaries were different – his situation unsettled me more and has caused me to reflect in different ways on how people like him can be helped.

In the first part of this lecture, I will make some background comments about my experiences and reflections on the political and theological of homelessness. Then in the second, I’ll focus in on how the ‘three faces of poverty’ relate to homelessness and how this can help shape our response.

My background

I left school in 1990, I got a job cleaning in central London which involved being on the Strand by 7.00am. The extent of the rough sleeping at that time was shocking – with 3-4 people sleeping under almost every doorway and a road like Villiers Street running down to the embankment feeling like a homeless village.

I went onto study social work at Hull University, and volunteered each week at The Hull Homeless and Rootless Project. I wrote my dissertation on the Government’s Rough Sleeper’s Initiative (1990-93) which was the first major policy initiative focused on addressing street homelessness. After this worked in a 140-bed homeless hostel in Hackney and then went to Centrepoint to manage emergency hostels for young homeless people in Soho. Today it is my privilege to be Director of Social Work for West London Mission, based here.

So I speak to you tonight as someone who has engaged with 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. It creates strong feelings of distress, anger, sympathy and bewilderment. Homelessness captures something raw and fundamental about social breakdown. The numbers of those sleeping rough is a kind of social barometer, an indicator of wider levels of poverty and exclusion.

The image of a rough sleeper could be described as an icon of poverty because of the powerful way it conveys both personal tragedy and political failure.

Politics

It is undoubtedly highly political: back in the late 1980s a Tory minister, Sir George Young reputedly said

‘The homeless? Aren’t they the people you step over when you came out of the opera?’

But the scale of rough sleeping in that era could not be ignored – it’s important to remember that the first Rough Sleeper Initiative was started by Margaret Thatcher because of the pressure created by the sheer numbers sleeping rough around Westminster and Whitehall. For the many critics of the government, it was an easy indicator to point to about the social outcomes of Thatcherism.

But the problem did not go away and 7 years later, Tony Blair established a Social Exclusion Unit with one key target being to cut rough sleeping by two-thirds. Then when he became Mayor Boris Johnson said he would eliminate rough sleeping completely by 2012. Officially, Blair was successful in reaching this target, Johnson did not come close – and despite new initiatives, the numbers sleeping rough has increased considerably since 2010.

In recent days, there has been a furore surrounding Hackney council’s initiative to tackle rough sleeping which involves fining homeless people up to a £1000. An online petition against the initiative gathered over 80,000 signatories and just last week the council backed down from their proposals.

Theology

And, as well as politics, of course this is a theological issue because the church has been indelibly involved in this issue for centuries. The majority of homeless charities have their roots in the church, most obviously organisations like The Salvation Army and theConnection at St Martin’s in Trafalgar Square.

But fewer realise the role that Christians have in setting up organisations like Centrepoint– started by Rev Kenneth Leech, and Shelter – whose first Chairman was West London Mission’s very own Donald Soper.

And today, the church continues to be a major player – especially through the 90+ Winter Shelter projects around the country – similar to one that this church participates in Westminster. Soup kitchens and groups such as the Wednesday Club run downstairs here – and other forms of voluntary help are overwhelmingly run by Christian and other faith groups. It is undeniable that belief in God has and continues to motivate people to respond.

I was struck by a quote I heard from a homeless person on a BBC3 documentary about homelessness in Bristol:

‘Christians get a lot of bad press, but for homeless people, they are the salt of the earth.’

But what are the ingredients that lead to someone becoming homeless?

1. Material poverty

The first issue is to many of us the most obvious: material poverty.

At its best, society has a safety net which can support people through hard times. This is a key principle of our welfare state. But for so many people this safety net is developing more and more holes. People are more vulnerable than ever, due to a whole host of factors.

Our Day Centre for homeless people in Marylebone sees around 100 people each day – and we see daily the impact of material poverty:

  •  The lack of affordable housing – areas like where I live in south London where house prices have gone through the roof
  • Economic downturn and austerity – the withdrawal of funds for services which support people. Despite the rise in rough sleeping, our emergency day centre in Marylebone has lost all of its statutory funding. The largest grant directly due to the cuts.
  • Benefit sanctions which are becoming more strictly enforced and are impacting more people than ever
  • Leaving an institution such as prison, care leavers, the Army and hospital
  • The insecurity of zero hours contracts and split shifts

The most significant development in recent years is the pan-European poverty is affecting homelessness in London with so many people, especially working men, coming from the EU coming to London for work.

We had a group of Romanians sleeping on the steps of the church here, who would wake up early, cycle off to work around 6.00am and then 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. It is in deep contrast to the others who buy up property in the West End and never live in it. So we have foreign nationals sleeping on the streets and foreign nationals buying up houses which no one lives in. It is a picture of injustice.

2. A poverty of relationships

When I worked for Centrepoint, I managed two different emergency hostels for young people in Soho. One was a hostel for young people who had just become homeless – where they often came to us from sofa-surfing or because they could no longer stay where they had been. Often it was an Auntie or grandparent who could no longer put them up and they had been sent to us by advice workers.

The other hostel was for those young people who had been on the streets for some time, those who had become more embroiled in street life – whose addictions to crack and heroin and the lifestyle to support these addictions through selling sex, begging or shoplifting.

They were very different places, each focused on a different client group.

As you can imagine, there were a huge number of issues which surrounded these young people – self harm, mental health, leaving care and virtually all of them came from materially poor backgrounds. A plethora of issues surrounding 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 story after story 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.

This experience is echoed by a report by St Mungo’s called ‘Home is where the Heart Is’ which found that relationship breakdown was the most significant cause of homelessness.

It is a picture we have seen echoed at Big House, our supported living service for homeless men. And reconnecting residents with their families has been a key focus at The Haven which helps men with alcohol dependency.

But it’s an issue which often the homeless agencies have not found it easy to talk about. Despite the issues seen on the front-line, during my time at Centrepoint, it was not mentioned in any of the reports produced.

I found something similar when studying social work at University: there was a real reluctance to connect poverty to relationship breakdown despite the close link that so obviously exists.

Why is this? Well I think it’s due to not wanting to be judgemental – to blame families, especially those who already have so many challenges.

But more deeply, 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 them as people for whom relationships are fundamental to who they are. Too often, purely ‘rights-based’ approaches are too individualistic and do not have enough appreciation of where people find true meaning and fulfilment – through loving others and being loved. We cannot get away from the human importance of relationships.

The politics of these two forms of poverty

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These two issues also reflect on political perspectives of these two types of poverty. The diagram on the right is adapted from Jim Wallis’ analysis in Faith Works (SPCK 2002). I have not positioned or coloured these two issues by chance. It’s because of the political significance of how we view these issues.

Commentators and think tanks on the right of centre – such as the Centre for Social Justice set up by Iain Duncan Smith – place a strong emphasis on family breakdown as a cause of poverty.

Left of centre organisations, such as Church Action on Poverty, tend to focus is on material poverty, such as benefits and financial inequality.

Of course one the relationship between these two forms of poverty is dynamic – relationship breakdown creates material poverty. And we know that material poverty and financial insecurity worries are one of the key causes of relationship breakdown.

Material poverty is easier to blame on the government – on the structures of society. Whereas relationship breakdown is more the realm of personal responsibility.

3. A poverty of identity

But underneath both of these issues is a deeper underlying factor – and that is a poverty of identity. More deeply than a lack of material resources, or even the absence of positive relationships with others, is your identity and the essential relationship you have with yourself.

Again, of course these factors are dynamically interrelated – our identity can be easily affected by our material conditions and relationship problems.

But every week it seems that reports are issued concerning the rise in mental health conditions and especially anxiety and depression. Yesterday, my 12 year old son pointed out to me a newspaper headline which said ‘Homework ban to save children from depression.’ He thought it sounded an excellent idea.

The rise in these mental health issues are symptoms of a vulnerability that many people have around their inner well-being. And of course, for homeless people, their experiences of exclusion and trauma are both a root cause and an on-going reason for their mental fragility.

Of course, trauma is often dealt with through the self-medication of using drink, drugs and other addictive substances. WLM’s service, The Haven, specializes in caring for men who are dependent on alcohol and who have led chaotic lives. But so often this chaos has a root in trauma, the pain of which has been anesthetized for years through misuse of alcohol. The tragedy is that the medication of alcohol leads not to healing but in turn to further trauma and pain. This is why the re-connection with family is so hard – because it involves facing up to the pain they have been part of causing through their addiction.

These deep issues of identity are why people suffering from addictions can sometimes find it easier to undertake the physical detoxification from the drug or alcohol from which their body is dependent – compared to the deeper task of mental and emotional rehabilitation, which necessarily involves looking beyond the physical and into themselves. For many the pain of trauma is too deep. A member of my own wider family who has had drug problems for many years has repeatedly gone through detox programmes but will not engage in rehab. He describes it as ‘a can of worms’ that he is not prepared to open.

A key issue within homelessness is that alternative identities are available which can be a draw back onto the streets. There is a certain type of freedom and camaraderie on the streets, the ‘duck’in and diving’ and getting by hour by hour. It is seen in the cheeky street character who sells The Big Issue. And however negative, the task of gathering funds to maintain a drink or drug addiction can be relatively exciting and can each give a day a clear goal. It can be hard to leave these strong identities and feel you are disappearing into the anonymity of a lonely flat and a mundane job.

This is why there has been a growth of work within homelessness sector in recent years on the issues of resilience – helping vulnerable people develop approaches which mean that set-backs or problems don’t cause an unravelling of their whole situation and put them back on the streets. 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?

I was struck recently when I lead a session for churches and homeless services in Middlesborough and a woman spoke about her recovery from street homelessness and addiction. One of the significant moments she recalled on her journey of recovery was when she handed over cash to pay for her own electricity bill. It was not when she received a gift or when someone did something for her – but when she took responsibility for paying for something she had used. This was a key step in her recovering her identity.

All of us have an inner vulnerability to some degree. Being honest, during the last few months I have faced many challenges and I have found elements of my work very stressful – but like many of us here, I am fortunate to have support – both materially and in relationships which have helped uphold me in times of challenge.

State of society

So this is my outline of three faces of poverty and how they relate to homelessness today.

These range of issues display why homelessness captures something about the state of our society. It brings together a whole range of social issues – the ‘political’ issues of material poverty, the ‘moral’ issues of families and relationships and the ‘personal’ issues relating to a person’s inner identity. Our response to the issue needs to take into account these faces – because the nature of poverty is not static – it manifests itself differently in different times.

I was particularly struck by reading the footballer Bobby Charlton’s autobiography and what he said about the poverty he grew up in, in the North East of England in a mining community in the 1930s and 40s. He writes about how everyone in his community was hungry for the two days before payday because the money had run out everyone just ate bread and margarine. Material poverty was part of life.

But in contrast, there was very little poverty of relationships because of the tight bonds within families and the wider community. Furthermore, in the dignity of the working community, people knew who they were and there was a pride and strength of identity. This is not to paint a rosy picture of the past – but it does illustrate the difference between then and now. Today, material poverty is undoubtedly less dramatic – but relationships and identity are arguably weaker than ever.

So I’ll conclude by making the following points:

  1. What is clear from this analysis is that homelessness is not the same as houselessness. Houses are material things – made of bricks and mortar. Homes are much more than that – fundamentally because they are places of relationship and identity. They contain people who love us and they are places where we belong.
  2. We need to be brave to talk honestly about all these forms of poverty. Those on the left, who are more comfortable talking about structural and material change need to accept the central importance of families and strong relationships.
  3. Understanding these wider forms of poverty, means acknowledging the importance of empowering homeless people. Too often a focus purely on the material often simply means blaming the government. There is plenty the government should do, like build more houses and create a fairer society. But as well as building houses, our work must be about helping people re-build stronger relationships and a more healthy identity – and this means empowering people to take personal responsibility and ensuring that our activities and methods of care enable recovery rather than continued dependency.
  4. My final point is that Churches should be confident about the important role they have to play – because we have unique resources to address all three of these forms of poverty. Some people have suggested to me that there should be another circle called ‘spiritual poverty’ but I don’t agree – and it’s because I think all these three areas have spiritual implications. The Bible speaks of a God who cares passionately about material well-being, about relationships and our core identity. Spirituality exists in and through all these factors and not off in its own sphere.

The church can do a huge amount to respond to poverty – both practically through night shelters and politically through campaigning. All these things are essential – but should not limit ourselves to responding materially. For in the gospel of Christ offers unique resources to address the poverties of relationships and identity.

And it’s because, at the heart of the message on which the whole of the Christian enterprise is founded, there is the offer of a new relationship – both within a church community but also, more importantly, with God. The God of the Bible is not a solitary monad waiting to be discovered – but is a relational God of the Trinity, who reaches out to us with love and reconciliation.

So as well as the practical and political efforts we can make to address material poverty, we should also be confident of the resources we have to help people build health relationships and re-build their identity.

As we have seen within WLM over the last three years, the role of chaplaincy has enhanced and deepened our work with homeless and marginalized people. We have formed a greater integration between practical care and faith and spirituality – and seen the way these can complement and enhance each other to the benefit of our residents and users.

Conclusion

I started off speaking about Terry from Kings Cross and I’ll end with him. Terry had serious material needs and he had serious relational needs. But underneath both he had a deep issues around his identity.

But the church did not give up on him and continued to walk with him during the darkest times. A few years after the church first got to know him, Terry became increasingly ill and frequently had to spend time in hospital. Even then, he would often discharge himself and ensure he made it to church. And it was not to do with asking for money – or anything material – but because of the relationships he had with those there.

Sadly, Terry died when his body finally could not deal any longer with all the damage inflicted on it. At his funeral his sister paid a moving tribute to the role the church had played and the difference they had seen it make in his life.

It’s just one story, about one person, in one context. But for me Terry’s story illustrates these three faces of poverty and gives a glimpse of the way the unique way the church can respond.

Jon Kuhrt

Executive Director of Social Work

Hugh Price Hughes lecture at Hinde Street Methodist Church, June 2015


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