I read today in the Church Times that homelessness has increased in England by 25% over the past 3 years. (At the same time the money put into homelessness by the government has decreased by about 29%). We, in Christ Church, like many other churches in Falkirk, support our local homeless project by providing items for starter packs to help those about to move into their new home. But those are the lucky ones. Those are the ones who have probably been on waiting lists for many years, regularly sitting for hours in housing departments telling their story over and over again to amass the points necessary to be given a flat in probably the worst part of town. The statistics tell us that the majority are single men, followed by single women. The tabloids would have us believe that most people on the waiting list are young women who get pregnant merely to get a house. In fact, they are just 17% of the total and believe me, very few got pregnant merely to get a grotty flat.
When I worked for the Rock Trust I used to go round groups talking about our work. I always asked people who they thought of when they heard the word ‘homeless’. For the majority, it would be the drunk tramp – the visible side of homelessness. The person who begs in doorways and sleeps in the streets of our cities. But there are so many more that are hidden from view: the newly divorced; the ex-service people who have lost their tied housing; the abused; the mentally ill who should be getting ‘care in the community’ but who so often fall through the cracks; the many young and now middle-aged people who can’t afford a mortgage or the high rents and just don’t qualify for social housing; the bankrupt (another increasing number which often includes families with children); the asylum seeker; and the many young people who have been put out of their homes or have just got out of Care. For many of them it just isn’t their fault at all. After all, who would choose to be homeless?
Having been homeless myself, I know it is one of the most degrading and depressing situations one can find oneself. You lose all dignity having to beg for accommodation, willing to settle for anything that is offered even if it is in foul bed and breakfast houses. If you are offered emergency accommodation you lose your privacy as the warden can enter your house at any time. Many don’t allow visitors of any kind, tvs, music, and your belongings have to be put into store while you use the basic supplies that come with the flat. These flats are often given at very short notice so it is difficult to notify everyone of your new address and mail goes missing, bills get overlooked, appointments forgotten, and as you don’t know how long you will be there it is impossible to make any plans for the future. I now have a smart phone, a filofax, and a calendar on my computer and occasionally I can miss an appointment. Can you imagine what it is like for someone who has none of these things? “You didn’t turn up for your housing review appointment which we made 6 weeks ago, so you’ve been removed from the list.” That is the reality for many people.
I am now in a fortunate position that means I live in a largish house with spare rooms. If that wasn’t the case, both of my boys would have been homeless at some points in their lives. However there was a time when I lived in a one-bedroom flat with both my children and helped out a friend with two small boys for a year when she was made homeless. We adults slept in the lounge and four boys shared one bedroom. This is the reality for many people. My friend wasn’t classified as homeless then because she had a roof over her head. How crazy is that?
Of course there is private rented accommodation out there, but most require large deposits paid in advance. And they are much sought after. Imagine you had little money but had to make a host of phone calls and travel all over town to view flats. How would you manage? Many don’t accept people in receipt of benefits and the vast majority are furnished. What do you do then, with your own bits and pieces? Throw them out, store them in friends’ garages until such times as you can get your own unfurnished place? It just seems that everything is against you.
This is 2012. Yet I recently spoke to a local teacher who told me of a pupil who has no money, no decent clothes or shoes, who never gets to go on any school outings. How can this still be happening today? We send money off to our link churches and schools in Africa, yet there are still children in our own country who have nothing but the threadbare clothes on their backs. And then our governments spend how much money on new trams and the Olympic Games? And that’s why I can’t get enthusiastic about it all. I can’t wax lyrically over the sense of patriotism it has engendered, or the great advert it is for our nation, when there is still so much poverty and homelessness right next door to us. That’s not a great advert – not in my book anyway.
So I keep praying. I keep praying that the homeless will be safe. I keep praying for the agencies who help them (Christian and others). I keep praying that our government will see sense and put money where it is needed and not what will give us a higher profile. I keep praying.