For Christians, ‘sorry, no room’ is a particularly evocative phrase at this time of year, recalling as it does the story of the first Christmas, replete with popular conceptions of a heavily-pregnant, donkey-riding Mary being dragged through Bethlehem’s back streets by an increasingly desperate Joseph in pursuit of a place to sleep and bear her child. Sadly, ‘sorry, no room’ it is also likely to be the response that all too many of the UK’s homeless will hear when seeking help from statutory services.
Economic, social and policy changes have combined since 2010 to reverse previous successes in reducing homelessness, to the extent that 57,750 households were accepted as officially homeless by their local authority in 2015/16, an increase of 6% on the previous year. At the same time, hostel beds for single people have fallen by some 10% in the last four years to just 35,000 in England, with around half of homelessness projects seeing a cut in their funding. Little wonder then that the Government’s own figures show the number of rough sleepers in England doubled from 2010-15 to some 3,569. Too many people, then, are finding there is no room at the inn for them this Christmas.
However, the Christmas story has for centuries motivated the long history of the church’s commitment to helping society’s poor and downcast. Indeed, it was a cluster of Christian and Jewish charities which led the first serious concerted action against homelessness in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in the foundation of the UK housing charity Shelter (1966) and the first ever UK anti homelessness legislation in the form of the 1977 Housing Homeless Persons Act. Such work continues to this day. One recently-completed research project from the Cadbury Centre (‘Megachurches and Social Engagement in London’) showed how Britain’s churches care for the homeless, running winter soup kitchens, providing friendship, medical and personal support, feeding and celebrating with hundreds who would otherwise have been alone and on the streets on Christmas Day, and, increasingly, opening up their buildings to accommodate rough sleepers. National Christian charity Housing Justice suggests around 500 synagogues, mosques and churches served as temporary night shelters over the winter of 2014-15, accommodating over 2,000 people. Some Anglican and Roman Catholic dioceses have gone further and permanently converted surplus church property to provide accommodation for the homeless.
Birmingham Churches Night Shelter is an excellent example of what churches can deliver in this area when they collaborate, relying as it does upon the facilities of 14 churches across the city over 84 nights to offering a dozen beds a night. 12 is perhaps not a huge number in its own right, but it represents a significant proportion of the 36 individual rough sleepers recorded in the city centre in 2015. 36, however, is up from just 7 in 2011, and in the meantime, another prominent resource in the city, Birmingham YMCA, has had to reduce its provision in the light of funding cuts. The need for provision is therefore increasing whilst capacity remains at best static.
In light of further anticipated cuts, statutory offerings can only continue to reduce, and homelessness is therefore one more area where the contribution of faith communities and the wider third sector is likely to have to grow substantially to fill the gaping void. In a city like Birmingham, that will probably invite collaboration across faith communities as well as between Christian denominations, which itself will further reinforce and underline the huge contribution faith makes to the life of our great city.