I work at the London Jesus Centre. Here we aspire to be a place where people in crisis can find both the resources they need to rebuild their lives and the relationships they need to flourish. Our mission statement rests on two assumptions: that dignity can be restored and community can be created where people are both empowered and connected. Empowered by being equipped with the skills and resources they need to find a way out of homelessness, and connected by belonging to a community that will support their recovery.
Whether someone is a refugee who has been forced to flee their country, or a rough sleeper wandering the streets of London, what exacerbates the trauma of poverty is its capacity to disempower and disconnect. These are the twin invisible wounds that many homeless people carry within them every day.
Last year 8,855 people were seen rough sleeping on the streets of London. Yet, festering beneath the surface of statistical headlines, are human stories of a different kind of catastrophe.
To have nowhere to go to is a crisis of resource. But to have no one to turn to is a crisis of community. This double impact tears at the heart of what it means to tackle both the causes and consequences of homelessness.
To be poor is to lack power. Whether that power is administrative, relational or material, wherever you find the marginalised, you inevitably encounter the disempowered. Rough sleeping is a painfully visible wound in our city. It is destitution standing on its head, crying out for attention. It is visible because it is the consequence of every other safety net failing a person. An ex-businessman who I met at our homeless drop-in once lamented: “I finally found myself in a situation that I couldn’t talk my way out of, think my way out of, or buy my way out of”.
To be poor is to lack the dignity of power. It is to depend on everyone for everything and to feel that you contribute nothing to anything. It is to hit rock bottom and to run out of options. Restoring dignity is never less than helping people to regain power by accessing resources. Sometimes this means getting free stuff but often this means learning new skills.
And yet this is still only the tip of the iceberg. Homelessness is a symptom of a deeper disease.
Rough sleeping, in all its brutal drama, is still only a surface wound.
To be poor is to lack people. I have personally spent over a decade, sitting alongside the homeless, naively seeking a diagnosis of how it all goes wrong. People are complicated and causes are complex. However, the closer you get to anyone who is hurting, the more visible hidden wounds become. A resounding and heart-breaking theme that runs through the majority of stories I have heard, is that people run out of friends long before they run out of money. To be poor is to run out of resources and to run out of relationships.
When resources fail us , the aftermath can be severe. Resources, however, can be acquired and re-acquired (sometimes as quickly as they are lost). But when relationships fail us, the consequences are traumatic. Trust cannot be acquired, but only rebuilt and recovered over time.
When resources fail us the solutions are quantifiable: skills, advice, food, clothing, bricks and mortar. But when relationships fail us, we enter the chaotic world of beautiful essentials that money can never buy. This is the world of unscripted care, unfundable friendships, impromptu parties and ordinary people who want to be present in your life. This is the world of community. It is a world where the most important work you do is unseen, uncredited and uncaptured by outcomes. It is a world where people know your needs, but also remember your name. This is because community is not a means to something else – it is an end in itself.
In the heat of the American civil rights movement, activist Martin Luther King Jr wrote these stark words as fuel for a strategy that would earth his mammoth dream:
“the aftermath of non-violence is the creation of a beloved community”.
We need a vision much bigger than independent living and better policies in order to solve a nation’s housing crisis. The opposite of being homeless, is not ‘getting housed’. It is true that governments have failed to invest in building enough homes. But it is also true that ordinary people, like you and I, have failed to invest in building relationships.
The aftermath of homelessness is not bricks and mortar, but the creation of a beloved community – a place to call home.
Jon-Jon Hilton, Welcome Manager