For Andrew Gray, the solution to homelessness is within our reach
In a world of bad news, it is easy to forget that good can emerge from evil. In 2015, on my way to Mass one Sunday, I came across memorial flowers to a homeless man beaten to death in a subway beneath the Norwich ring road. Eighteen months later, on a bitter winter’s evening, I was walking towards Trafalgar Square when I encountered a paramedic scribbling notes as he stood over the body of a homeless man. People drifted by, oblivious that a soul had departed this life from a dirty city pavement.
It was these events which spurred me into persuading General Synod to set up a Homeless Task Force, in order to bring practical support to existing organisations to tackle this evil, ‘overcoming it with good’ to paraphrase St Paul. In February 2019, Synod unanimously endorsed the call. To avoid the grind of Church bureaucracy it was agreed that the Mission and Public Affairs Council would sit as the Task Force so we could begin immediately. In Summer 2019 we convened a meeting of homeless charities at Church House to find out what would help them most. The answer was unequivocal and unanimous: housing. Churches were already running plenty of night shelters, but longer-term solutions were desperately needed.
Then Covid struck. The Government announced the ‘Everyone In’ scheme and discovered that the number of rough sleepers in the UK amounted to 37,000, well beyond the 6,000 ‘official’ count and much closer to the estimates provided by homeless charities. ’Everyone In’ no longer functions, and what has happened to the homeless? It is currently a statistical tennis game being played out in the media. The Government claims 26,000 have been moved into accommodation, a number refuted by homeless charity Shelter which believes only one in four have found permanent housing.
What remains undisputed is that the number of rough sleepers was far higher than thought, a figure now compounded by the arrival of Afghan refugees. The UK took in 37,000 refugees (coincidentally the same number), with most now housed in hotels at a cost of £4.7m per day. The Home Office pays a further £3.5m a day for other asylum seekers, since there is no adequate accommodation for them. And that’s before we count the 280,000 long-term homeless in unsuitable accommodation.
The problem has grown larger, but tackling daunting challenges lies at the heart of the scriptures. Jesus tells us that if we have faith like a mustard seed, mountains can be moved and ‘nothing will be impossible for you.’
How has the Church responded? During Covid, the Homeless Task Force devoted considerable time exploring funding models and sourcing expertise to pave the way for housing provision. I have liaised closely with the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Housing Initiative, which was established in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Their remit is broader than ours, but we have common cause.
In theory, the Church could put a massive dent in the number of people who are without homes. It has land and can borrow money very cheaply. This is a golden opportunity. Instead of selling land, we can develop it and meet a social need while generating revenue.
Unfortunately, both the Task Force and the Housing Initiative have encountered common obstacles. When it comes to property, the Church has a poor track record. Parishes with long memories recall glebe being appropriated under the 1976 Endowments and Glebe Measure, and since then much of it has been squandered. Diocesan staff often confine their energies to managing clergy housing. It’s much easier to flog assets for short-term capital gain than worry about what happens in ten years, especially if it covers that increasing parish share shortfall. But neither does that help the vulnerable – it simply sells the family silver to keep subsidising a failing model.
St James reminds us ‘the testing of your faith produces perseverance’ and I have had to remind myself of this numerous times, especially when some Diocesan responses have been scandalous, including “Why should we do this? It’s the Government’s job…We have to consider the risk to the Diocese’s reputation…Homeless charities should be taking the lead on this.”
The Catholic movement was once in the vanguard of building the Kingdom in the slums of England and must not fall guilty of the same inertia. Is using the church hall once a week for coffee after Mass more beneficial to the poor than turning it into flats for the homeless? Does it best further God’s kingdom to sell land vacated by religious orders to commercial developers – or is there an alternative? The choice is rarely a stark dichotomy between money and charity. There are plenty of win-win models.
Happily there are signs of a cultural shift in parts of the Church. Plans are afoot to set up a new company which would provide the money, expertise and capacity to dioceses, helping them provide housing and generate income. This can only happen with backing from the Church Commissioners, but we have begun conversations and prospects are exciting. We could house thousands of people in need, provide significant improvements to the church’s funding crisis, and help grow mission.
And this we must do, because once we set aside the statistics and the Excel spreadsheets, we are commanded to put faith into action. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Andrew Gray, a lay member General Synod for St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, sits on the C of E’s Mission and Public Affairs Council and leads on homelessness.