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Sunday, 22 January 2017

Sermon: Homelessness Sunday

Here is the sermon I preached today for Homelessness Sunday at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. This passage from Isaiah (9. 1 - 4) which we have heard throughout Advent and Christmas provides a paradigm through which we can consider our current experience of homelessness. It enables us to reflect on the journey that those leaving the streets make from darkness to light and to consider what the breaking of the yoke of oppression in a nation in order that all people experience abundance and joy might mean today for those who are homeless.

To be homeless is in a very real sense to walk in darkness. Those who are rough sleeping are exposed and vulnerable in the darkness of the night. It is difficult to avoid slipping into hopelessness and despair. In the dark you are invisible and that cloak of invisibility is what seems to cover people who embarrass society (us) with their need, their lack of a place to be, their unbelonging. Our Christmas Appeal told the story of Richard, whose story shows how quickly and easily people can move from relative stability and security into the dark place that is homelessness. Two and a half years ago Richard was a stay at home dad living in a nice apartment, in a nice complex in a very nice part of town. His relationship with his wife broke down and he started sleeping rough over the road from where he had been living so he could look after his children and take them to school. From that point onwards, he says, “Things started going downhill.”

When people are in this dark place it is very hard to then move back into the light. It has taken Richard over two to get to the point where he is leaving the support of The Connection at St Martin’s in order to stand on his own two feet. With the help of staff at The Connection, Richard is now living in Building Prospects, affordable housing managed by The Connection in Westminster, where he sees his children regularly. He has also worked hard to gain skills, completing the Build a Bike course, passing the European Computer Driving Licence and completing a year-long course in massage therapy – all to be able support himself in the future, as his eyesight declines. He has also sought solace by working in the Art Room, alongside Mark, Art Tutor at The Connection. “I do a lot of art,” he said, because “you have to do something which takes things out of your head… I now do it four mornings a week and it helps. It really does.” Richard’s next step is to work as a trainee in a hostel for homeless women, putting into practice some of the skills he’s learnt while at The Connection.

Richard’s story is of a slow but steady return from the darkness but the experience of trying to leave the darkness is not always so consistent. I recently talked and prayed with another homeless man who has had support from The Connection and from our church. He has had periods of getting clean from drugs and as a result being able to find accommodation and hold down jobs, as well as periods where he has relapsed and lost the positive progress he had earlier achieved. This man was very aware of how easy it is to relapse and of the extent to which he was in a situation where the temptation to relapse was very strong and surrounded him constantly. It was for that reason he had sought prayer and the support of a regular worshipping community.

Our reading from Isaiah promises the light of hope, the lifting of burdens and the smashing of oppression. Homeless individuals can be supported into new homes, as we have heard, and vulnerable people prevented from becoming homeless. That is a message which has been part of our history here at St Martin’s as well as being part of our ongoing ministry. Our worship on Homeless Sunday is an opportunity to celebrate work that tackles the problem of homelessness and the stories of people who are no longer struggling with their housing. Here, at St Martin’s, we particularly celebrate the work of The Connection, the Vicar’s Relief Fund and the Sunday International Group which is differing ways bring the light of hope into the lives of those who are their users and guests. The Connection helps by providing a range of specialist services, all under one roof, which enable people to address their homelessness and make the necessary steps away from the streets so they can re-enter society and live ‘normally’ again. The Vicar’s Relief Fund provides a rapid response service by awarding small but essential grants to help alleviate housing difficulties for vulnerable people in their time of need helping prevent homelessness happening in the first place and our Sunday International Group provides hospitality to those who have no recourse to public funds.

This means that our engagement here with homelessness is extensive and significant, but the paradigm provided by our passage from Isaiah suggests that by themselves these organisations and services are not enough to prevent homelessness occurring. For that to happen, our society and our social and political structures need to be transformed in ways that prevent homelessness happening in the first place. The passage says that before a sense of abundance and joy in which all can share can be seen and felt within the nation, a yoke or rod of oppression has to be broken. That yoke or rod of oppression is the social and political structures which cause homelessness within our society. The extreme growth in the numbers rough sleeping across the UK and in Westminster is not attributable simply to the individuals themselves but also to political policies that have left those individuals unable to remain in the security and stability of their homes.

Shelter recently claimed that two families in London are made homeless every hour. Their prediction, based on government homeless statistics, is that 1,260 families in the capital will lose their home in the next month and 7,370 over the next six months - the equivalent of a household every 34 and 35 minutes respectively. The number reported sleeping rough in England has more than doubled between 2010 and 2015. In 2015, the last year for we currently have figures, the increase was 30%. There was a time in the UK when rough sleeping seemed to have been nearly eradicated but we know, only too well, from our own experience here in Westminster that that is now far from being the case.

What has changed in that time? The government’s reforms surrounding Welfare have included caps to the local housing allowance, possible reductions in the amount paid to supported accommodation providers, individual sanctions and caps on the total amount of benefit for individual households. The effects of these Welfare reforms have been wide-ranging and impactful. While welfare reform is certainly a threat to increasing homelessness, cuts to revenue budgets in local authorities, with consequences for staffing levels in homelessness services, social work and related departments have also bitten hard. On Friday it was announced that Sunderland’s budget for homelessness services is facing a 100% cut. In the next round of austerity cuts other councils will be forced to take similar measures. The pressures of cuts in local authority budgets don’t just affect the homelessness service itself. They are being felt in lots of areas which meet (or should meet) the needs of homeless people, such as mental health care, substance abuse and recovery services, educational welfare services etc.

Welfare reforms and austerity cuts have been introduced at a time when we are not building enough new places for people to live: ‘Current rates of housebuilding in England are below half the level needed to meet existing and anticipated demand for new homes’. A further factor in this mix of government policies is the fact that migrants from the Eastern EU countries must first work for 12 months before they qualify for any state benefit. Should someone from one of those countries become unemployed, they are therefore at greater risk of becoming street homeless. This is reflected in the fact that 36% of rough sleepers came from one of those countries; a 188% increase since 2009/10.

While political policies are not the only factor causing homelessness in the UK, the combined effect of welfare reforms, austerity cuts, immigration controls and a lack of affordable housing has come at a time when there has been a considerable increase in rough sleeping across the country and especially here in Westminster. Therefore I do see this combination of government policies as a yoke of oppression causing homelessness and making the journey back from darkness to light more difficult to achieve. As Isaiah states, the yoke of oppression must be broken before there is any widespread prospect for rough sleepers and sofa surfers to experience abundance or joy within our nation.

Yet our reading insists that the light of hope remains. Where can that light be found in relation to our current political and social situation? Our worship on Homeless Sunday is intended as an opportunity to take our engagement with homelessness a step higher. How can we do that? Our newest initiative funded by our Christmas Appeal is the St Martin’s Frontline Network, through which we are seeking to find ways of transforming the social and political structures which cause the increase in rough sleeping that we see all around us.

The Frontline Network is the network of support workers who request grants from the Vicar’s Relief Fund on behalf of their clients. These support workers are on the frontline working with vulnerable housed people across the UK and they are, as a result, able to identify the issues and policies which cause homelessness to occur. The Frontline Network seeks to harness the ideas, energy and experience of those at the frontline working alongside homeless and vulnerably housed people in order to make a positive change in reducing homelessness in the UK. I wonder, therefore, whether we, at St Martin’s, can work together with the Frontline Network to build relationships, develop ideas and communicate the experience of the frontline to policy makers so that our social and political structures can be transformed in ways which prevent homelessness happening in the first place.

Were that to happen, we would see in our own day and time the light of hope, the lifting of burdens and the smashing of oppression of which Isaiah spoke. We would enable the journey, from darkness to light, that those sleeping rough, like Richard, have to travel, to become less burdensome and difficult. The story Richard told for the Christmas Appeal ended with him saying, that “in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be out of The Connection … [but] everything I’ve learned here, everything to get into work, everything for the skills is down to this place.” If the yoke of oppression caused by current government policies were to be broken, more rough sleepers would be able to say the same and the flow of people joining them on the streets would reduce. May that become our experience as we support not only The Connection, the VRF and the Sunday International Group but now also the Frontline Network too.


Sinead O'Connor - Streets Of London.

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