6 min read

The rough sleeper: an icon of injustice

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

Each rough sleeper is a raw illustration of injustice. On an awareness day for both homelessness and mental health, Jon Kuhrt reflects on the root causes and yet sees hope.
A black and white close up of the weather-beaten and wrinkled face and beard of a homeless man.
Portrait of a homeless man in Prague.
Ales Dusa on Unsplash.

In 2016, five-year Brooke Blair became an internet sensation after a video of her berating Prime Minister Theresa May went viral. As she put it, she was ‘very angry’: 

“Yesterday night, I was out on the streets, and saw a hundred and a million of homeless people. I saw one with floppy ears, I saw loads. You should be out there, Theresa May. You should be, biscuits! Hot chocolate, sandwiches, you should be building houses. Look, I'm only five-years-old. There's nothing I can do about it. I'm saving up money but there'll never be enough. You've got the pot of money, spend some and help people.” 

The video struck a chord because a young girl was passionately expressing the distress, anger, sympathy and bewilderment that so many feel when seeing people sleep rough in such a wealthy country.   

The image of a rough sleeper is an icon of poverty. And just as religious icons represent the sacred, so does each person sleeping rough. 

Each rough sleeper is a raw illustration of injustice and social breakdown.  The structural issues of poverty and inequality crystalize in the plight of a vulnerable person huddling in a doorway. In them we see an amalgam of both political failure and personal tragedy. 

It's personal because we know that each person has a different story about what led them onto the streets. We will always be moved far more by a person than any statistic.  

The image of a rough sleeper is an icon of poverty. And just as religious icons represent the sacred, so does each person sleeping rough. A precious human of infinite worth, imprinted with the divine, living in destitution. And just as restoring fragile religious icons is a specialist job, so the task of restoring those who have been homeless is often complex and intricate work. 

Today, 10 October, is both World Homeless Day and World Mental Health Day. The two are closely intertwined. It’s a good day to reflect on the nature of homelessness and what we can do in the work of restoration. 

We cannot simply remove the tip of the iceberg without addressing the deeper issues ... The water is getting colder and the iceberg is growing. 

Rough sleeping is just the tip of a far bigger homelessness iceberg. It receives the most attention because it’s visible and visceral. But it is just a small fraction of the total number of people who have no settled home who exist underneath the waterline: those sleeping in temporary shelters, hostels and squats, sofa-surfing or placed in B&Bs. 

It’s the visibility of rough sleeping that gives it political capital.  Whilst in power, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Theresa May and Boris Johnson all launched high profile initiatives with ambitious targets to reduce or end rough sleeping. 

In 2018, I was seconded from the Christian charity I was working for into the Civil Service as a specialist adviser on rough sleeping. In the four years I spent in this role I worked under four different Prime Ministers and six different homelessness ministers. Despite some significant progress made before and during the pandemic, the numbers of people sleeping rough and those in temporary accommodation are starting to rise again.  

We cannot simply remove the tip of the iceberg without addressing the deeper issues of poverty that it is connected to. The reality is that we have a deep housing crisis in this country. The water is getting colder and the iceberg is growing. 

But the challenge is that rough sleeping and homelessness are genuinely complex problems.  Politics and economics provide some of the answers but not all. After thirty years of working with people who are homeless, these are the key issues which lie behind homelessness. 

Poverty of resources 

The most obvious cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing. Housing is a resource which is not distributed fairly, and this inequity creates intense pressure and vulnerability. All of this is compounded by austerity, funding cuts and benefit sanctions which have withdrawn support services for vulnerable groups. 

As London has become an international playground for the uber rich, many new housing developments are simply investment opportunities. Often people sleep rough outside accommodation no one lives in. It is a stark picture of the failure of the housing market. 

This aspect of homelessness is the one that government can do most about. Brooke Blair was fundamentally right – Prime Ministers need to build more houses for those who need them.   

A poverty of relationships 

But homelessness is more than house-lessness.  Homes are more than bricks and mortar: they are places of relationships. 

And if you talk with anyone sleeping rough, you are likely to hear of relationships that have gone wrong with partners or with their wider family. Some are fleeing abuse or domestic violence; some have been perpetrators. Relational problems are often a key source of regret and shame; where people carry their deepest scars. 

In our concern for people’s rights to the resources they deserve, we should not lose sight of where humans find true meaning and fulfilment. We all have a deep need to know and be known, to love and to be loved.  We cannot get away from the importance of relationships and a sense of belonging. 

A poverty of identity 

Finally, and most deeply, is the issue of people’s inner identity. The essential relationship that everyone has with themselves.    

The rise in mental health problems are symptoms of a vulnerability of our inner well-being.  For people affected by homelessness, their experiences of exclusion and trauma are both a root cause and an on-going reason for their mental fragility.  

And the addictions to alcohol or drugs which are common to many rough sleepers are deeply connected to these psychological vulnerabilities.  Drugs become a form of self-medication to ameliorate pain.  And however negative, the lifestyle required to maintain addictions can be relatively exciting and can provide each give a day a clear goal. It can be hard to leave such an identity and embark on a demanding journey of recovery.

Homelessness doesn’t just end in a flat. It truly ends in community and connection.

So, in short, homelessness is far more than house-lessness. Houses are a key resource but homes are primarily places of relationships and identity. And the restoration of these cannot be just done by the government. It requires a whole community. 

Thirteen years ago, a Christian couple in Peterborough, Ed and Rachel Walker chose to invest their own inheritance into a house for people who were homeless.  The idea inspired others: it was simple and innovative: encourage people with wealth to invest in homes for those who are poor. And each home was attached to a local church which provides friendship and support and a critical sense of community.  

This is the roots of Hope into Action where I now work. We are now a national charity with 106 homes across the country and last year we housed over 400 people. Our model is a holistic response to the types of poverty I have described.  

Our tenants are provided with the resource of a great house where they feel safe and secure. And this is combined with relationships with housemates and the support of local church volunteers. And our whole focus is to empower our tenants to find a more positive identity: whether through purposeful work, on-going recovery or through exploring faith. Last year, fifty percent of our tenants chose to engage in church activities and six took the step to be baptised. 

Homelessness doesn’t just end in a flat. It truly ends in community and connection. In our work we see justice and generosity in how resources are shared, compassion in the relationships that are formed, and hope on which people can rebuild a positive identity. Just as a lone rough sleeper is an icon of poverty, each of our tenants is a symbol of hope. 

Popular articles

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