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Faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people

Naturally, I never allow my petty prejudices to taint my relationships with people - except for when I do. Take the other day. I’m walking along Peckham High Street and coming towards me with his familiar scuttling gait is Leonard Taylor. I’m eager to talk with Leonard as I know he has been re-housed locally after 17 years living rough. The last I’d heard he was struggling to settle, appearing in his old haunts, hanging around the soup runs, talking nostalgically about his former life of sleeping on cardboard in shop doorways and deploring the arid existence of the resettled homeless person: housed but friendless.

Yet the usually remorselessly dour Leonard responds joyfully when I inquire about his situation.  He explains that he had a knock on the door from some Jehovah’s Witnesses and, after taking up their offer to attend a service, has joined the local congregation.  Immediately flashing up in my mind are the following highly pejorative verbs: brainwash, capture, indoctrinate. ‘Are they being good to you Len?’ is my downbeat question, rather na├»vely exposing my feelings regarding this turn of events.

In response, Len explains to me that he is a very happy man as he has never felt part of a group before, one in which people look after each other and where the fact that he had slept rough doesn’t matter. So much better than those day centres for the homeless he concluded, before turning off sharply towards Lidl.

I reflected on my conversation with Len as I read a new piece of research called Lost & Found which explores faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people.[1] The author Carwyn Gravell is, like me, an atheist. Central to the research are illuminating interviews with 75 homeless people that took place at a variety of centres for the homeless. His findings make uncomfortable reading for those of us who think that services for people with support needs should be ‘user led’. Just five of the 75 people interviewed had been given the opportunity to talk with staff about faith or spiritual matters, even though the majority had a desire to do so, reasoning that being asked about such areas of their life validated their identity as people rather than as ‘service users with problems’.

The damning conclusion from the research is that discussing faith and spirituality is largely regarded as being outside the remit of many support workers even where they are employed by faith-based organisations as these are subjects fraught with risk associated with being perceived as proselytising and are dangerously personal. You get the picture: apprehensive support worker begins to feel wobbly as the subject veers towards faith, belief and issues of morality and desperately seeks to paddle back to the safer conversational waters of resettlement plans and utility bills.

Actually, I have enormous sympathy for staff working with people who have support needs. It is not simply a fear of entering uncharted territory that acts as a constraint. Expectations from commissioners and the organisations they fund can be contradictory.  There is a strong drive to ensure that all service users have support plans with achievable outcomes. These should be measurable, so are usually practical in nature, for example, improving your employability. There are obligations to gauge risk and protect service users. Risk assessments, serious incident reports and safeguarding alerts are now de rigueur. Concurrently there is an inexorable and welcome move towards service users playing a greater role in determining their own destinies by being given more opportunity to influence support plans. Personalisation is leading to service users receiving individual budgets to purchase activities and services directly themselves. Sometimes their selections carry a degree of risk (you want to climb Snowdon, can’t we just go to the park?)  

Yet surely our systems promote inhibition and suppress opportunity for the individual to blossom where they discourage discursive reflection on matters such as faith and the role of religion. As they struggle with competing demands, it is not surprising that support staff feel reticent about moving into territory where they can be accused of being unfocused or criticised for increasing levels of risk.

Wishing to reflect further on the meaning of faith, I seek counsel from Don Rodrigues, a Thames Reach volunteer. After his marriage broke up, Don spent many months homeless and suffered debilitating depression, triggered by his fears about losing contact with his children. On many a cold night he was consigned to taking the night bus to Heathrow Terminal 5 in a desperate attempt to keep warm.  Don speaks with quiet dignity about the three groups of ‘professionals’ in his life that helped him to recover his confidence and self-esteem.  There was the doctors’ practice which assisted him to repair his mental health, the charity, Thames Reach, which enabled him to develop new skills and the Ruach City Church where the pastors helped him to rebuild his spiritual life through prayer and service to others.  

He describes the interlinking importance of health, work and spirituality with enviable lucidity. I ask him to sum up what it was that the pastors were able to give him and, without pause, he states ‘The certainty that your future is greater than your past’.  It was great sentiment to end on, to which I could add only an atheist’s 'amen'. 

A version of this blog was published in Inside Housing on 19th April 2013

[1] Lost & Found – faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people – Lemos&Crane (2013)


Peter Stephenson said…
Thanks for this Jeremy. A very honest, thoughtful and challenging blog.
Jeremy Swain said…
Thanks very much for your comment Peter. Thinking about faith and spirituality has really made me think about my own prejudices a whole lot and the conversation with Don that I describe at the end will remain indelibly stamped on my mind. A very impressive guy.
CG said…
An insightful blog and a fascinating subject. Thanks for sharing this and for the Lemos & Crane research. As someone who works with vulnerable people I think there is much to explore about the role of faith in people's lives and the opportunity to openly discuss this and be listened to without the imposing of an atheist viewpoint. Are you familiar with Chris Arnade? A photographer based in New York who does pictures of people who are homeless, he wrote a piece in the guardian about how his atheism was challenged by the people he photographed. He did an interesting project here contrasting people and wealth:
Always interesting to read your blog Jeremy - thanks.
Jeremy Swain said…
CG thanks for directing me towards Chris Arnade's work - fascinating stuff. I've just attended the funeral of a women who lived in one of Thames Reach's specialist mental health projects for many years. Apart from the support we were able to give, her other sustenance came from her relationship with the local evangelical church, members of which packed out her funeral. It was great to see.

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