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Talk faith to homeless, says study

19 April 2013

by a staff reporter


Spiritual support: the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, Dr Samuel Wells, sleeps rough outside the church, in December last year

Spiritual support: the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, Dr Samuel Wells, sleeps rough outside the church, in December last ...

A STUDY of the spiritual lives of homeless people has recommended that all organisations providing care for them should offer discussion groups on spirituality, and that each person should be asked about his or her spiritual needs.

The first charities offering support to the homeless were church- or faith-based, but in the past few decades, there has been an increasingly secular approach to homelessness, the study says. Christian charities are often scared of "opening up a can of worms" by talking to people about faith.

Yet the report, Lost and Found, written by Carwyn Gravell for the think tank Lemos & Crane, says that homeless people welcome such discussions, which help to validate their sense of identity.

The detailed research was carried out with a working group made up of people from secular and faith-based providers for homeless people in London, and included interviews with 75 homeless people.

More than 70 per cent of those interviewed defined themselves as religious, either conventionally so or in a broader sense. But only five people had ever been asked by homelessness charities or shelters about their faith. Only a third had been to church recently - but those who had were overwhelmingly positive about their experience.

The report recommends that providers should have "life interviews" with each homeless person, in which issues of faith could be touched on; and that homeless people should be put in touch with local churches or other faith groups in their area, as well as given access to spiritual material.

Homeless people told researchers that they would welcome this approach. One said: "[I] would like to have a conversation with staff to know more about faith, especially when I needed it most."

Mr Gravell visited Soul Food, a discussion group at the Connection at St Martin's, which is run by an assistant curate at St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Revd Richard Carter, A similar group is run by the West London Mission, and is attended by people from a range of faith backgrounds.

All providers should offer a similar group, the study recommends, to allow discussion about the purpose of life, and to establish communities where people can explore issues together.

But the report says that there is also much that wider society can learn from homeless people. "They know from experience that the material comfort and security that so many of us enjoy cannot be taken for granted. . . Many have come through this experience with their faith intact or new-found, or with profound spiritual insights; some have learned to live on less, on next to nothing, in as full a way as is possible to imagine. They have found what the rest of us have lost."

Mr Carter, in a foreword to the report, writes about the discussion group at St Martin's: "I come back feeling I have been closer to the meaning of real faith than sometimes when I am in church."

The report is available free here

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