The following is a guest post, sharing the work of the Church Urban Fund.
For most of us in the UK the cold days and colder nights of winter are a chance to don our woollen hats and scarves and hurry from place to place without much risk of getting seriously cold. For some of us though, indeed for an increasing amount of people, the cold of winter brings with it a very real risk – a fatal one. Recent statistics state that on any one night there are over 4,750 people sleeping rough in England. For these people who live on the streets, winter is remorseless. Last year over 450 people died on the streets, from various causes, including acute hypothermia.
The numbers of people who sleep on our streets are rapidly increasing. Since 2010 the UK has seen a rise of nearly 170% of rough sleepers. The two main causes of homelessness in this country are the end of a private tenancy (the number of households evicted from a privately rented home has accounted for 78% of the rise in homelessness since 2011) or a life event (such as a relationship breakdown, a redundancy, or leaving prison or the armed forces).
It’s not just the cold that reminds us about homelessness at this time of year, but the familiar Christmas story also helps us to reflect on the issue. After the annunciation Mary, a pregnant teenager, leaves her home to stay with her cousin Elizabeth – is this a biblical version of sofa-surfing for this soon-to-be young mum? When the census forces her and Joseph on a dangerous journey to Bethlehem where they find inadequate lodging in a stable for Mary to give birth. Jesus is born into homelessness and then, with his parents, is forced to flee as a refugee to escape Herod’s violent regime. Homelessness is an experience the holy family were very familiar with.
For Christians the Gospel message of loving your neighbour and serving the poor calls us to respond to the issue of homelessness. When reflecting on homelessness, I cannot help but think of Jesus’ words: ‘whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’. What are we doing for our brothers and sisters who are experiencing homelessness?
Of course there are multiple ways that we as Christians can help make a difference to the lives of people experiencing homelessness, but one specific way is through the work of the Church Urban Fund – a Christian social action charity working around the country to tackle issues such as homelessness. The Church Urban Fund mobilises communities around the country to offer life-saving services to people experiencing homelessness through Winter Night Shelters and programmes which support people on the journey from rough sleeping to something more stable and sustainable.
One person who the Church Urban Fund helped was Tom, who was offered a bed in a winter night shelter; he wrote: “I’m Tom. I’m 26. I was homeless. Some people are homeless because of drugs and stuff like that. That wasn’t my problem. Some people are homeless because of their mental state. That’s partly why I was homeless because of my mental health… My family just abandoned me. And I was going through a really rough time, sleeping on a mate’s sofa when I could, but otherwise I just had to sleep rough on the streets.
“It was a really difficult time being homeless, I was at the point that I wanted to kill myself. If I hadn’t got the help when I needed it, yeah, I wouldn’t be here. I got referred to this winter night shelter. They provided a warm bed, a listening ear and hot meals. It was very welcoming and homely. I was there for two months and they even supported me when I had to attend court.
“At the shelter, there was a volunteer who found out that I had worked in catering in the past. She suggested I attend an interview at a local guest house. I got the job! And a permanent place to stay. With homelessness there’s always more that could be done, but what they have done for me here is beyond expectation.”
Tom’s life was transformed because of the care offered to him through the work of Church Urban Fund. There are so many other lives that could be saved and changed by people like you and me, by Christians who respond to Jesus call to serve others. This winter plummeting temperatures and the story of the baby with no crib for a bed remind us of the struggle of people experiencing homelessness – a struggle many of us have in our power to alleviate, or even, to end.
To support the work of Church Urban Fund please donate here.