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29 November, 2019

Homeless this winter?

Homeless this winter?

Statistics from the Office of National Statistics estimate that 726 homeless people died on the streets in England and Wales in 2018. At the same time it is calculated that between 2008-09 and 2017-18 Council spending on support for single homeless people in England was cut by 53%.

Take my home town of Hastings. Four years ago the number of rough sleepers counted on the street was 10 or 12 – all of them men. Now, on an average week, this figure is 60 people, most aged 30-55 and now 25% of them women.

Sadly, in January 2018 my local paper reported that the police had confirmed that between Christmas and New Year three people died on the streets; two men and one woman.

With winter approaching, around the country temporary shelters will be opening – as they do every year. As the weather the worsens, these shelters will supplement the work of other hostels that provide sanctuary all year round. Often these winter refuges are run by Christian organisation or churches, including the 'Snowflake' project in my own town. Here is a short impression I wrote in that same Christmas period when those three people died in Hastings:

6.45 am. With three other volunteers, I've just left the night shelter.

Outside it's raining hard. I know it's rained all night; I heard it. And now, driving home, the roads are flooded in places. I am returning home to warmth and comfort; to breakfast, then to bed – I caught only snatches of sleep through the night and will try to catch up on some today.

We had just under twenty guests last night, mostly men. It was a quiet night in a large draughty church hall. As I drive home the guests will now be stirring for the morning shift of volunteers to provide breakfast for them. And then what? While they slept last night I reflected on the days ahead for our guests.

After breakfast they will have to be turned out into the rain, onto the streets. Our care only extends to the night-time. Most of our guests will leave in the clothes in which they arrived last night and in which they have just slept. That is how it is – every day. Their lives will repeat the same pattern today. They probably won't go without food today – the town is generous – and they will have shelter again tonight. But none of them will have what I have and most of us have; they won't have hope. 

Tonight was my first duty since last winter, and while I didn't see all the faces when I arrived at bedtime last night, I did notice that at least two were familiar – those men were there at the night shelter again this year, as they were last. Not all, but many are men and women who live on the streets in good weather and bad. From December to March they have the little respite of nights under cover in the various church halls which host the local project.

These men and women each carry very little in terms of possessions. But more crucially they do not carry hope. You may be tempted to blame 'them', though you know nothing about their circumstances. More often it is the system that has beaten them. But anyway, should bad decisions – even a single bad decision in some cases – result in this? Lives lacking hope? I fear that few, if any, will see an end to this pattern. 

I reflect that 40 years ago I was in the middle of writing my undergraduate thesis. It was entitled, "The Homeless and the Housing System." How ironic. Nothing changes? I dig out that dusty thesis from my bookshelves and I look at some of the opening words that I had written as a naive 22-year-old, "There is surely something strange, if not incomprehensible to the layman, that while the majority live in relative affluence, a small, but growing, minority are without a basic human need: that of shelter." A long time has passed since then and I ask myself what sort of society have we built?

A two-year-old testimony like the one above should really be out of date by now. But it’s not. Not everyone who uses a winter shelter is permanently homeless – and those serving the homeless work tirelessly to get people into better accommodation – but overall the national crisis is worse than it was two years ago.

Is homelessness one of those critical issues in your area? Is this a work for you or your church to consider? The shelters may be stop-gap measures in a wider housing crisis – and other actions will be necessary – but they are no less essential, bringing immediate relief in crisis situations.


The statistics in this post can be found, with other facts and figures on poverty in the UK, in our new resources for churches, A Deepening Crisis? Download it here, or email us to request hard copies.

29 November, 2019

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