General Synod: homelessness

01 March 2019

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THE General Synod has called on the national Church to have a battle plan against homelessness.

Introducing the debate on his private member’s motion on Thursday afternoon, Andrew Gray (Norwich) asked the Synod members to come with him on a journey. He was on his way to Sunday mass, and he descended into the St Stephen’s underpass, in Norwich city centre, under a roundabout. He noticed a little blanket tucked against the wall, and on it were a bunch of flowers and a card with the words written: “I am sorry I didn’t know your name. . . I’m sorry I did not help more.”

By the exit, a police notice had been fixed to the wall, saying that a Polish man, Sergeo Menes, had been found with internal bleeding the weekend before.

Thereafter, the story faded with time. Nearly two years later, Mr Gray said that he was approaching Trafalgar Square on a frosty morning when he saw a paramedic standing over the body of a homeless man. He said: “Living on the street killed him: it is like playing roulette with death.” He said that the Church should not rely on the Government alone to deal with homelessness: there had been a 169-per-cent rise in homelessness since 2010. Crisis believed that there are 236,000 homeless people across the UK, he said.

“It is easy to become angry with the failures of politics, but we must avoid any temptation to apportion blame.” This was how secular politics worked, but Synod members were representatives of Christ’s Kingdom, and “we must lead by example.”

The Church had a proud history of helping the homeless: Centrepoint, Shelter, and Housing Justice had been founded by Christians. “There is much of which we can be proud; but we can, and we must, do more.”

The motion sought the authority of the Synod to go forth and establish a Task Force, he said. “From the outset, we will work very closely with the major homeless charities in order to support and scale up their efforts.” He gave examples of how the Church could help Crisis, Housing Justice, and St Mungo’s. He also suggested that the Church work with developers and investors to increase the provision of affordable housing. “Our forebears managed to provide alms housing. Surely it is not beyond our capacity to do so again.”

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Any strategy, however grand, faced “pitfalls and limitations”, but “in this age of political disenchantment, we must hold high the light of hope. In this age of bad news and fake news, we must be the Good News.”

Millie Cork (Leeds) said that she worked for St George’s, Leeds, whose crypt had one of the city’s largest homeless shelters. She welcomed the task force as a “concerted effort to bring change”, and urged that it include people who had been homeless. In Leeds she had seen that many homeless people were stuck in a rut, and had fallen out of temporary housing. She had seen the miracle of people coming off heroin. The Church has a unique message of freedom, she said, and Christian-based recovery initiatives were needed.

The Bishop of Ely, the Rt Revd Stephen Conway, said that he shared his home with an elderly cat, and, should anything happen to him, his cat would be looked after better than any human who was homeless. The Government admitted that homelessness could be stopped by 2027 only if the charity and faith sectors worked together.

He said that homelessness had become a “despairing norm”. Cambridge was the most divided city in the UK, and something needed to be done about that, and the Church had brought together a summit to think about what to do. When Jesus had talked about the little ones, he had included those who were left out of society, on the edge.

The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, congratulated Mr Gray on his balanced motion. Everyone should be a Good Samaritan: they should see their neighbour. Dr Sentamu said that when he was a curate, he had decided to take in some homeless people, until it became not secure for his children. As chairman of YMCA, he said that it had done wonderful work with homeless people, and he would be very proud to tell it that the Church of England had set up a task force. He wanted people to say: “Church of England, we want to go with you.”

The Revd Lisa Battye (Manchester) said that she had a friend who was a homeless young man. She was proud of the Manchester night shelter, and her own church’s work with homeless people. She had walked the streets of Manchester as a Street Pastor and had witnessed the growth of homelessness. There was a danger of a lack of coordination if this motion was passed, and it could affect the effectiveness of schemes that were already running. It might also appear as if the Church were reassuming the role of looking after society instead of the Government, which should be doing so.

In a maiden speech, Stephen Hogg (Leeds) said that that homelessness was more than just living on the streets. His cousin David had died after being homeless, aged 32: “suicide, drug overdose, we will never know”, he said. Mr Hogg was sure that many members would have stories, but the Church lacked coordinated, consistent efforts.

“Homelessness is a serious, real and current problem; so let’s do something serious, real, and now,” he said. The Church could sell land to build social housing. “We can do something, for God’s sake let’s do something”.

The Revd Rachel Wilson (Rochester) supported this task force, but said that she knew how hard it was for parishes to do things, and that churches could stop working on homelessness if there was a task force that things could be passed on to. “It is no longer good enough to say warm words about these things, as long as someone else deals with it. . . This is too important to leave to somebody else.”

Mark Sheard (Archbishops’ Council) spoke for all members of Archbishops’ Council in thanking Mr Gray for the motion. Society was failing its most vulnerable, and something has to be done, he said. The Council would throw its weight behind it, and the task force should be agile and able to make a difference now, to “improve the lot of the most vulnerable this winter”.

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, chaired the Manchester Homeless Partnership, he said. Everything it did was done in partnership with people with lived experience. He argued that the task-force motion should be very flexible. “Let’s get on with the work.”

In a maiden speech, Simon Friend (Exeter), a property developer and house builder, involved in a housing charity in Devon, said that homelessness was not just about rough sleeping, and a sudden negative life event could escalate into a housing crisis in just a matter of weeks. The task force could be at the forefront of a new national project to deal with homelessness. He saw potential for partnership with social-housing developers, and the use church land to build on.

The Revd Andrew Moughtin-Mumby (Southwark) said that this issue was crucial across all generations. Through “hope, faith, and love”, Synod members would vote the motion through.

Responding to the debate, Mr Gray said that he was not proposing to create a 1950s government ministry, but a group that could work with Government and national charities to tackle homelessness. It was about “what works on the ground”, he said. More than 35 per cent of rough-sleepers were victims of serious violence. He wanted a small, focused group that could deliver outcomes quickly. He believed it was possible to do this, and send a message to the people that the Church was hoping to resolve homelessness.

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The motion was carried by 395 to 1. It read:

 

That this Synod, noting:
a) the substantial levels of homelessness in the United Kingdom; and
b) initiatives to address this problem by Her Majesty’s Government, such as the Homelessness Reduction Taskforce announced in the 2017 Autumn Budget
and celebrating the good works already being undertaken by the Church of England, other Christian denominations, faith groups, charities and social enterprises, call upon the Archbishops’ Council to enable the formation of a Church of England led Homelessness Taskforce including representatives from the Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity to undertake:
(i) the formation of plans at national, diocesan and parish levels to utilise Church resources (whether financial, volunteers or buildings) to provide shelter and support services for the vulnerable on a nationwide basis, building upon the wide experience of government and Third Sector initiatives in this field; and
(ii) the implementation of those plans in partnership (where appropriate) with local authorities, homeless charities, voluntary organisations, faith groups and social enterprises.


Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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