I WAS on my way to Sunday mass when I found it: a memorial of bouquets, heaped in a filthy subway beneath a roundabout. It was June 2015, and a homeless man in Norwich had been found dead from internal bleeding. Lines of police inquiry remain open regarding the fatality of Mr Meges, but his case is far from unusual: more than 35 per cent of rough-sleepers are victims of violence, figures published by Crisis say.
Exposure and drug abuse also take their toll. On a frosty night in February 2017, I encountered a paramedic standing above the body of an old homeless man on a busy London thoroughfare. That year, 597 people died on the streets of England and Wales. The sight of his corpse shook my conscience. I felt that the Lord was calling me to act.
For this reason, I have submitted a private member’s motion to the General Synod aimed at practical, cohesive action (News, 8 February). It calls on the Church to form a task force, comprising bishops, clergy, and laity. Its job will be to work in close partnership with leading homelessness charities, business, and the Government to deliver radical change.
THE Church has much to offer this sector. Homelessness agencies such as Centrepoint, Shelter, and Housing Justice were founded by Christian activism. At a parish level, churches can still mobilise volunteers and good will in a way that few can match (News, 14 December). As Kathy Mohan of Housing Justice observed recently, without faith and community groups the rough-sleeper count in London would be 40 per cent higher (News, 8 February).
At a national level, the Church of England reaches across the shrill divide of secular politics. What other organisation can unite City bankers and social workers to a common cause? Its position is unique: it can be both a pillar of the Establishment and its moral conscience.
The homelessness agencies to whom I have spoken are strongly interested in working with the Church. While they undertake sterling work, the numbers of people needing help has risen sharply. Since 2010, homelessness has increased by 169 per cent, according to figures from Homeless Link.
Rough sleeping is the visual side of a much larger problem. Crisis estimates that 236,000 people across the UK live on the streets, in cars, tents, shelters, or unsuitable temporary accommodation. The causes are manifold: the aftermath of the 2008 depression, problems with Universal Credit, record immigration, and a chronic shortage of social housing. Personal problems such as drug abuse, mental health, and family breakdown play their part.
The Church is not a homelessness charity in its own right, and I do not propose that we establish one, or duplicate existing work. The part played by the task force will be one of strategic partnership: mapping out the problem, joining up the dots, and taking action together. It will require a pragmatic outlook, scaling up measures that work and helping to fill gaps where resources are thin or absent.
Such a co-ordinated approach — in partnership with homelessness charities, business, local authorities, and government agencies — will create a deep and lasting impact. For example, Liverpool has surplus accommodation but requires additional resources for social care and support. Oxford, in contrast, lacks affordable housing and shelters for rough-sleepers.
This method will allow us to learn from others. Sometimes, Church-led intervention can misfire, inadvertently keeping people on the streets and “recycling” rough-sleepers from one help-point to another. Charity misapplied can be worse than none; but past mistakes should not blind us to the possibilities that lie ahead.
There is much cause for optimism. The Church Army, for example, has a 100-per-cent success rate in rehousing homeless women who are fleeing domestic abuse. Supported-housing schemes in Finland have massively reduced the number of homeless. In other words, it can be done.
MOREOVER, it must be done. In 1963, Martin Luther King wrote: “The Church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the State, but rather the conscience of the State. It must be the guide and the critic of the State, and never its tool. If the Church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Words must be followed by deeds. It is my great hope that the Synod will carry this motion, and that the resulting task force will be agile and imaginative in scope and action. Jesus spoke on behalf of the powerless and the forgotten; in an age of political anger, we must be guided by his grace and truth.
The Church has an opportunity to follow the example of the young Samuel. “Speak, Lord; for your servant is listening.”
Andrew Gray is a member of the House of Laity of the General Synod, representing the diocese of Norwich. The Homeless Task Force motion will be debated next Thursday (21 February). The text of the motion is at www.churchofengland.org.