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A tents dispute about how to help the homeless

To house the homeless, argues Jon Kuhrt, silly soundbites and hasty policies need to be replaced with the right relationships and radical reform.

Jon Kuhrt is CEO of Hope into Action, a homelessness charity. He is a former government adviser on how faith groups address rough sleeping.

In an underpass a pedestrian passes and look at the tent of a homeless person.
Spielvogel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

2011: London’s Westminster City Council proposes byelaws to ban rough sleeping and to prevent groups distributing food to people in need, known as ‘soup runs’, in the Victoria area.  

The proposals caused an almighty uproar from charities and community groups and demonstrations outside the council offices. In addition, both the London Mayor Boris Johnson, and the Conservative central government spoke out against the plans.  In the end the proposals were quietly withdrawn. 

At the time I was Director of the West London Mission, a homelessness charity based in Westminster. We worked closely with both churches and the council but we publicly disagreed with the plans because they were divisive, polarising and unworkable. 

‘Lifestyle choice’ 

2023: The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, makes comments on social media about cracking down on rough sleepers who sleep in tents. Among other comments, Braverman said: 

"We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice.”  

Again, Braverman’s comments have provoked an avalanche of criticism. In the middle of a housing and cost of living crisis, the accusation that people living in tents are simply making a ‘lifestyle choice' is rightly seen by many as simplistic, harsh and deeply unhelpful to addressing the serious issue of rough sleeping.  

Nothing represents UK poverty and exclusion with such visceral power as the sight of someone huddling in a doorway.  Therefore, to the average person, providing help to rough sleepers makes sense. Banning help appears harsh and inhumane. These are issues that need talking about carefully and compassionately. 

After 25 years of working for homeless charities, I worked for four years in the Government’s Rough Sleeping Initiative as an Adviser on how faith and community groups addressed homelessness. Building trust and cooperation between charities, churches and government was the key focus of my work.   

And probably the most sensitive of all issues is how the outdated ‘Vagrancy Act’ of 1824 could be replaced.  I know what frustration the Home Secretary’s ill-judged comments will cause to those in government working hard on reducing rough sleeping.  

Dangerous and insecure 

But whilst it’s right to condemn Braverman’s comments, we have to consider how we respond and not simply add to the unhelpful polarisation of these issues. The answer to anti-tent rhetoric is not to encourage people to give out more tents.  

It may sound obvious, but the key thing to focus on is the welfare of rough sleepers at the heart of this discussion. And that does not mean we endorse every form of help that is offered.  

The truth is that the rise in the use of cheap tents to sleep rough in is a genuine problem that local councils and charities have been struggling to address. They often create dangerous and insecure environments and can easily mask people’s serious declines in physical and mental health. 

Christian response 

A few years ago, I worked closely with All Saints Church in the centre of Northampton because they had 15 tents pitched in their churchyard.  The drug use, defecation and other behaviours of those living in the tents were genuinely anti-social and problematic.  Tensions with the council were rising and the vicar, Oliver Coss, was grappling with what the right Christian response was.  Of course, there was genuine housing need in the town but what was happening in his churchyard was no good for anyone. 

Through careful discussions, we brokered a plan of joint action between the church, the local authority and the key local charity. Those sleeping rough in the churchyard were given notice and were told the tents would be removed on a certain date but alongside this, interviews and offers of housing were made to everyone.  I have huge respect for the way Rev.Coss navigated these tricky waters with resolve and compassion.  He took heat, especially when the national press picked up the story but he steered a course which was genuinely best for all concerned. Theologically, his actions were the right blend of grace and truth

Relationship and trust 

Last winter I was involved in a similar way with an encampment in the park right behind my house in south London. It was causing serious concern to many local people due to the fires being lit, rubbish piling up and the vermin it attracted. I got to know almost all of the occupants of the camp as they attended a drop in meal I run at my church. The relationship and trust we developed helped me liaise between them and the council’s rough sleeping coordinator and this led to the camp being cleared and each of them offered temporary accommodation. 

Informed debate 

Rather than hasty policies or silly soundbites, we need a more honest and informed public discussion about rough sleeping.  Addressing homelessness is complex because it involves an interweaving of structural injustice and the personal challenges that individuals face. Simplistic comments may work well on social media, but they don’t help people in the real world.   

Enforcement is not the dirty word it is often made out to be – sometimes it is a vital ingredient in helping someone change their life.  But in order to work, it must always be accompanied by a valid offer of accommodation, a meaningful step off the streets. And for too many, especially non-UK nationals, no such step exists.  

Radical reform 

Housing should be the key issue in the next election. We need urgent and radical policy reform to build more social housing. Record numbers are housed in expensive temporary accommodation which is causing bankruptcy in some local authorities. Millions of pounds of public money has been wasted in housing people for years in hotels which could have been used so much more productively.  

We need more of the longer-term, community-based solutions to homelessness such as those pioneered by Hope into Action. We attract investment to buy houses which we turn into homes for people who have been homeless. In addition to professional support, each house is connected to a local church who provide friendship and community. 

People sleeping rough in tents is not a ‘lifestyle choice’. It is the visible tip of a vast homelessness iceberg in this country caused by relational poverty and chronic underinvestment in affordable housing.  And if we do not address the problems beneath the waterline, then we should not be surprised to see more tents appearing in our towns and parks. 

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.