Being community and family as a means of tackling homelesness (Part III)
Traditional, sometimes called Victorian approaches to charity, have been characterised by well-meaning people doing things for people who are less fortunate than themselves. This generally involves meeting a physical need through some form of provision or material assistance. This is not a bad thing in and of itself; but where does that leave the individual when we have satisfied the physical need with which they presented, but failed to address the underlying emotional homelessness. We do this by being community and family.
When charity can be toxic
My church runs a soup kitchen and has done for a number of years. Feeding the hungry is a fantastic and noble thing to do but if we don’t understand that it needs to be part of a joined up holistic approach that addresses more than just physical needs then it can be toxic charity.
Doing things for people can lead to a dependency on charity that is not empowering people to feed themselves. Individuals being helped may become reliant upon various different charities for provision of food. If they are not exploring ways of tackling more than just the immediate need for food, then is it not incumbent upon those wishing to help them to explore these things with them?
For others in more extreme cases, charity may be simply helping them to save money for more illicit purposes. In Wolverhampton you can eat out on someone else’s dime three times a day all week. If you are entitled to benefits then you can save up with a view to having money to spend on alcohol and drugs. Charity in these cases may be enabling a lifestyle rather than empowering the individual to address their issues.
This is not everyone and certainly not the majority. Many do genuinely need the material assistance provided in terms of food but they may be more interested in satisfying their need for community, somewhere they are accepted and feel like they belong.
Being community and family
Our soup kitchen is a community in itself both for the helpers and the guests. Pastor Anthony Henson as well as others from the church and also from the local community attend on a regular basis. Anthony remarked recently about how out of a sense of compassion, they make the point of shaking the hands of even the dirtiest of individuals to provide them with a sense of acceptance and belonging. More than doing things for them, being community and family with the broken, is at the heart of the soup kitchen’s mission.
The same applies when looking at tackling other forms of poverty such as homelessness. Jeremy Watson is the project manager of the Wolverhampton Church Shelter. From the outsets the shelter has sought to be more than just a roof over heads for the night. Jeremy says this: “The Shelter has guests, it does not have clients! The culture is one of being ‘family.’ Although it is entirely dependent on its volunteers, it always looks to recruit people prepared to be ‘dads, mums, brothers and sisters.’ People who understand that the primary role is to listen and care for the guests. A compassionate and caring approach is essential in maintaining the right culture”.
In many ways the church shelter is an expression of how breaking cycles of housing poverty requires us to be community and family to the homeless. The shelter intentionally sets out to offer not just rest and recuperation to meet people’s basic needs, but also sanctuary, relationship, acceptance and a sense of belonging and community. In that sense it is a home, a community and a family, for those who have none.
These examples of community led work, lead me to question which plays a bigger role in the current homelessness crisis: Austerity? Or the breakdown of family, community and social cohesion?
Is homelessness in the 21st century a consequence of the rise of individualism? Is individualism consequently leading to isolation and exclusion and something of a loss of what it means to be human: Connection with and to others?