4 min read

A tents dispute about how to help the homeless

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

To house the homeless, argues Jon Kuhrt, silly soundbites and hasty policies need to be replaced with the right relationships and radical reform.
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  In the end the proposals were quietly withdrawn.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. 

6 min read

For want of better words... the impact of the indescribable

Henna Cundill is a researcher with the Centre for Autism and Theology at the University of Aberdeen, and editor of the But… Bible Study Series for Young People.

Confronted with a question about belief, Henna Cundill found herself stumbling for words. She contemplates the link between our self-identity and what we can communicate.
A woman stops in her stride down a street and pensively runs her hand through her hair as she looks to the side.
Joseph Frank on Unsplash.

I recently got into conversation with a young man who asked me, “Do you believe in God?” When I replied, “Yes,” I almost regretted it, because his next move was to ask, “Why?” and I found this question troublingly difficult to answer.  

Of course, I could have dredged up the old philosophical arguments for the logical existence of God – but none of that would have really captured the thing I have no words for. Belief is like… Oh, what is it like? A glitch… no, a glimmer… no, like a glimpse of… No. Goodness. What is it? I’m lost for a word or even a metaphor that will somehow express what it feels to say “yes” and “I believe in God” and in that moment, even if only for a moment, to feel oneself transported or transposed out of this tiresome, human existence and into something that is... well, it’s something…  

I think it's fair to say that conversations about believing in God are unusual these days, especially when the circumstance is an 18-year-old lad talking with a woman in her late 30s – albeit the lad in question was a philosophy undergraduate and we were at Cumberland Lodge, where such conversations are welcomed amongst those of all faiths and none. Even so, it still felt rather unusual to be asked a question like that, not out of hostility but just casually over dinner, and to see him genuinely and respectfully interested to hear what I might have to say in response.  

Eventually I did come up with some kind of an answer; I can’t remember what. And naturally, I turned the question back on him. Turns out he did believe in God, in fact he was Jewish, so he stumbled out some kind of answer too, but I think it's fair to say that he was hardly more erudite than I was. Eventually, we both agreed that it was rather difficult to describe the indescribable, and our conversation turned to rather easier topics - the food, the weather, geopolitics... 


There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed. 

The question of believing in God was done with. Yet here I am weeks later, still pondering why it was so hard for me to articulate what it means to live with that belief, and why that part of the conversation ended, but still felt so unfinished.  

Has faith always been so indescribable? I suspect it rather has not. These dark evenings always tend to lure me to my bookshelves, seeking out my “comfort books” that I read and reread year after year. Mostly cosy fiction of course, but alongside those, a non-fiction favourite is Sheila Fletcher's, Victorian Girls: Lord Lyttleton’s Daughters. The book is a fascinating study of a family of young women in the Victorian era, faithfully compiled from their own real letters and diaries, so that the voices of Meriel, Lucy, Lavinia and May Lyttleton themselves can all be heard clearly on every page. I just love to read this book over and over again, entering into the hopes, sorrows, loves and ambitions of these young women – so similar and yet so different to my own.  

One thing that stands out particularly is how clearly and easily they each articulate their sense of faith. They were, of course, heavily schooled in Victorian public piety, but there is most certainly a real faith there too. A favourite passage of mine is an excerpt from the teenage diary of Lucy Lyttleton, recounting the day of her Confirmation. She speaks of a ‘nice and stilling’ drive to church, with her parents either side in the carriage, and then:  

I seem to remember nothing very distinctly till I went up and knelt on that altar step, feeling the strangest thrill as I did so… and I know how I waited breathlessly for my turn, with the longing for it to be safe done, half feeling that something might yet prevent it. 

Oh, to be so thrilled by a religious ritual, and to have both the words and the courage to write about it. After all Lucy, what if someone might be reading your diary 150 years later?  

In mainstream society nowadays, most of us simply don't talk about faith, religion, and what it all means to us personally in that way. It’s not the done thing in a (presumed) secular society. Consequently, it is now very hard to write about it too. Yet, many philosophers in the past century have observed a link between our self-identity and what we can communicate. For example, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how our sense of ‘self’ is formed in “webs of interlocution” wherein what we take to be “good” relies on what we can effectively talk about, and thus have affirmed by those we talk to. If we turn Taylor’s idea around, might we say that when there are parts of ourselves that we cannot talk about, parts for which we cannot find social recognition and affirmation, then we cease to value those parts of ourselves as good, or may cease to recognise them at all? 

 With that comes a sense of isolation. There is a loneliness to the feeling that there is a bit of ourselves that cannot be valued because it cannot be shared, and it is hard to recognise a part of our inner world as ‘real’ and valid if it cannot be communicated and affirmed.   

To me it feels that, as we talk about faith less and less, and as the language of faith becomes ever more confined, not even just to private conversations but to our own inner worlds, our “webs of interlocution” are beginning to shrink and disintegrate – until believing in God can feel more like dangling on a loose and solitary strand than being part of any kind of web. It’s a lonely place to be – there is a part of me that feels important, but no one can affirm it.  

And yet, by simply asking the question of each other, and being ready to listen respectfully to whatever answer was forthcoming, it seems that me and a teenage lad managed to connect two lonely strands together. It was of no consequence that we worship in different faith traditions, or that neither of us really found the words to say what we wanted to say – a conversation took place, and a certain web of interlocution started to form. For some, reading this, there may be a feeling of resonance, or a moment of understanding, and perhaps that too adds a little to the web, as different people’s words and thoughts and experiences begin to connect across different times and places.   

Webs do more than just create connection; webs capture things too. Perhaps, as this web spreads between different readers and thinkers and speakers, that’s what will happen to this question of believing in God. After a certain point, such a web may even become large enough and robust enough to finally start to capture some useful words, or an apt metaphor, that will really help me to say something about what it means to have faith. To be able to say it is to be able to share it, and in these lonely times, being able to say something is really not nothing.  

Popular articles