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Homelessness: Problem is more than housing

21 January 2009

How do churches or individuals start working with the homeless? Heather Dadds considers good practice

HOMELESSNESS does not just happen. A variety of events in a person’s life — domestic violence, redundancy, relationship break­downs, or addictions — are often the cause.

Finding temporary accommoda­tion, such as a hostel, from where a person may eventually be settled into more permanent accom­modation, may be all that is needed. But, for many, this is not enough.

Although lack of housing is the immediate problem, there are often deeper and more difficult is­sues. There may be feelings of anger, failure, lack of confidence, lack of self-worth, and also depression.

Often, after the euphoria of resettlement, a person may simply not have the coping mechanisms or life skills to manage alone. Then follows a downward spiral of lone­liness, financial issues, failure, des­pair, and — ultimately — eviction or property abandonment. This is the cycle of homelessness.

Working with the homeless is a long-term commitment that has to be based on a relationship; and any successful relationship has to be based on equality. Building these relationships is not always easy, and there is a need to recognise the other person’s boundaries. The same rule applies to practical items as it does to advice, time, and attention: give only what people are happy and com­fortable to receive.

For some, the street is a comfort zone. They feel safe there. Any journey into housing will be a long journey of small steps; and for some it may never happen.

Breaking the cycle of home­lessness always involves a secure relationship. Not only does this give a sense of belonging, equality, and dignity, but it also enables a person to “fail” and seek help again without feeling inadequate.

There is also a need to adopt a holistic approach to the care that is given. Seeing the problem in purely practical terms is not enough: care of the spirit is often more important than that of the body.

If there is no time to give people encouragement, help them to address emotional issues, or to ensure that they have the confidence to see their lives differently, then it is difficult to furnish them with help or accommodation and expect them to succeed.

Applying a one-size-fits-all mentality to homeless people will never work, especially in com­munities that are increasingly multi-cultural.

The key to breaking the cycle of homelessness is “Love your neigh­bour as yourself.” The question is: do we see the person sleeping in the shop doorway, or church porch, as our neighbour?

Heather Dadds is a community chaplain and evangelist at the Church Army’s Marylebone Project in London, serving the needs of vulnerable and homeless women.


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