Tony Uddin, leader of the Tower Hamlets Christian Fellowship, writes about the local joint church night shelter he was heavily involved in setting up.
One of the challenges that we have had to face in setting up the Tower Hamlets joint church winter night shelter has been the opposition of the local authority homeless department. They haven’t been keen on the project for a number of reasons, mostly to do with a concern that by offering accommodation to rough sleepers, we run the risk of drawing homeless people from other boroughs in to Tower Hamlets.
In the background also appears to be the assumption that churches, whilst having good intentions are naive and should leave homeless provision to “the professionals.”
Whilst I have found their attitude disappointing, it has been useful to reflect on some of the issues involved and to ask ourselves the hard questions about what we are doing and why? I was really helped in this by a paper that Jon Kuhrt wrote and presented at a Christian homeless forum recently. He provided a useful reflection on the need to apply good theology to compassionate practice, based around an understanding of Grace and Truth working together. At the heart of what he was saying was that it’s easy to caricature Local Authorities as being cold-hearted and disinterested in the felt needs of homeless people, in much the same way as they or some of the larger homeless agencies portray the church as misguided do-gooders.
Reflecting on this has caused me to be more appreciative of what the council is trying to do whilst also being clear that as church, we will, by necessity, frustrate them at times because the values that drive us are different to values that are core to them. This is clear in the fact that we refuse to work according to borough boundaries. If someone in need happens to be sleeping on the street half a mile away from our building, but is technically in the neighbouring borough, there is no way that we will refuse to offer them shelter and hospitality just because the council wouldn’t approve. In issues like this, we have to be careful to make sure that we do not end up working alongside the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
However, the council’s view that we need to be careful of not facilitating people continuing to be homeless is a valid one and something we do take seriously. It would be wrong of us and indeed unloving to help someone maintain a destructive lifestyle. That’s why at the heart of the project has been an emphasis on working with those who cannot claim benefits and so are excluded from mainstream provision, not by choice but by a lack of entitlement. Similarly, we only offer people accommodation for 28 days so as to keep the emphasis on helping them to find more permanent housing, something we have been very successful in.
This process has made me more convinced of the need for what we do, but has also made me realise that we need to find ways of engaging better with the council whilst also being really clear about our values. I think that the key thing is that we as Christians need to be careful about making sure that we don’t expect the local authority to behave as the Church would, but, and I think this is really important, being clear that whilst we want to work with them, we are not an extension of social services and we will not be motivated by the values and demands that drive them.