Having written my name on the Rota for today, I have spent the last months wondering just what I might say. What do I, who live in a four-bedroomed house, with possibly one of the largest gardens in the locality and who doesn’t pay any rent, what do I have to say on the matter of homelessness? Except… the house I live in is not my own and, until my father’s death a few years ago, I had no money to speak of that would contribute to the rental or purchase of anywhere to live upon my retirement and, contrary to popular belief, the church does not provide houses for retired clergy ‘free gratis’ and for nothing. Following the call from God to explore first the vocation to monastic life and then to be a member of the clergy has not done my financial situation much good and I ponder, with some regularity, both the meaning of, and my belief in, the biblical injunction, “Consider the lilies of the field…” That’s all very well you will find me thinking, but where will I live when I am 68 or so and I come to retirement?!
I tell you a little of my story to put the reality of being homeless squarely where it belongs – in our midst.
When I joined the religious community to which I belonged for three years, I knew there was the possibility that it might not be the place where I would live for ever – either because the community might move, or that I might leave. When the time came that it appeared the community was no longer the place for me to live and thrive, then came the thoughts and worries: Will people want to talk to me as I have left the place that I thought I would live in for ever? Will people think I don’t love God any more? Also though were the practical questions of: Where will I go? What will I do? How will I afford to live?
I was lucky, in that my Uncle and Aunt had said, before I joined community, that, if I left, I should know that I could go and stay with them. I remember the phone call to them to tell them that I was going to leave. I was in a state of shock and confusion and was feeling physically sick as I explained I was leaving and asked if I could, indeed, come and stay with them. Of course, it was fine – even though my aunt’s mother had just died. My Uncle had two weeping women in the house – he describes it as one of the best summer’s he has ever had! But, as I picked up the phone to ask them if I could come to them, I wasn’t sure if they had really meant what they said, and, if they didn’t, what would I do and where would I go? I didn’t have enough money to rent anywhere and I didn’t know what job I would do or where I wanted to be. If they hadn’t said yes to my coming and staying with them, I am not sure where I would have gone. I was lucky – really lucky. Someone else who decided to leave the community spent a fortnight seeking somewhere to go and even then, the situation she went to was not ideal and didn’t last all that long.
Finding one’s self in a place of being potentially homelessness is not always something that happens to ‘those people’ over there. You may know of parents who have taken in their children and grand-children when the mortgage can no longer be paid due to a business failing, or ill health meaning the mortgage can no longer be paid, or the cost of living means that debts have piled up so high that there is no chance to pay them off without selling the family home. Then follow the questions: How long will the extra bodies stay in the house? Is there going to be any money to pay for the extra food, increased energy costs, phone and internet usage – and so forth? The reality of being homeless belongs squarely in our midst.
Someone I know carries money in their pocket all the time so that, when walking through the town, they can give money to people who are begging. I won’t give money like that but I will ask them if they would like a sandwich and drink bought for them. I do this a lot now, as well as asking them where they plan to sleep that night, or how they have come to be living as they are. If the person doesn’t want something brought for them, I do question their being there – so I am not as saintly or as soft as you might think I am. If I question their motives inside my head, I do then ponder on what it is that makes sitting on the smelly, cold streets of London more appealing than looking for work. And it’s not just the cold, smelly streets of London – I noticed someone in Rickmansworth the other day – not selling the Big Issue, but sitting with a hat on the ground in front of them, hoping for money from passers-by.
The reality of being homeless belongs squarely in our midst – because, for whatever reason people find themselves in this situation – whether through unexpected change of circumstance: redundancy, loss of a business, marital breakdown, ill-health meaning they can’t work any more and can’t pay the mortgage or rent, change of parental partners with the new parent not wanting the children of the previous marriage around any more – we will all know people for whom these things are reality, or know people who know people for whom these things are reality.
This is, I believe, the third year that we have marked Homelessness Sunday – which falls at the beginning of Poverty and Homelessness Action Week. For those of you who are more recent members of our church, we used to collect the items brought today as part of our Harvest Giving, but separated them a few years ago so that we could concentrate on giving thanks for the fruits and gifts of creation at Harvest time with the gifts we bring then, and then offer prayers and give rather more practical gifts at this point – joining in with the campaign organised by the charities, Church Action on Poverty, Scottish Churches Housing Action and Housing Justice.
If you have brought things along with you today – thank you for them. If you haven’t because you didn’t know or have forgotten, then feel free to bring some things along later today. If you don’t have anything practical that you can bring along, then maybe giving some financial support directly to one of the charities might work for you. If you don’t have anything practical to give and can’t afford to give a monetary gift, then give the gift of prayer. We all need the gift of prayer – and those who find themselves poverty stricken and without a home need prayer more than most. It’s been a mild-ish winter down south, but pity and pray for those who’ve been in the wind and rain and floods, as well as those in Scotland who’ve been in the snow – and if you’d like a first-hand account of volunteering for a shelter for the homeless over Christmas, pick up a magazine or look it up on our church website and you’ll find one there from a member of our church who did so this past Christmas.
The reality of being homeless belongs squarely in our midst but if you’ve never been homeless, or felt at risk of being so – and if you’ve always had enough money in the bank, through hard work or inheritance, then in your prayers give thanks. Give thanks, and spare a generous-hearted prayer for those who, for whatever reason, find their situation to be one of challenge and fear. Amen.