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The Rev Dr Keith Garner reflects on Christianity and Homelessness

19 February 2015 Wesley Mission news

Wesley Edward Eagar Lodge On Wednesday, 18 February, Wesley Mission Council members met to discuss a range of important issues, among them, issues impacting on congregational life. Our CEO and Superintendent, Rev Dr Keith Garner, a passionate advocate for improving the lives of homeless people, gave an impactful address to the Council. Read his full address below.

Wesley Mission Council Address by Rev Dr Keith Garner: "Homelessness and its impact upon congregational life"

Reflecting up Christianity and Homelessness gives valuable insight into the nature of poverty in any community. I define poverty not in terms of income (though some do) but in terms of two essential factors:

  • Not having sufficient resources to meets one’s basic needs
  • Not having sufficient resources to participate in community

In the broadest sense, Wesley Mission has a daily lived and shared experience with people who do not have a place to call home. They are a real and present demonstration of the need that exists around us and our willingness to follow the lead of Jesus Christ in a ministry of Word and deed.

If we are to talk about this in a helpful way, I believe we need to consider the following regarding homelessness:

  • Awareness of the facts
  • Recent changes in policy
  • Christian perspectives
  • Wesley congregational impact and response

Awareness of the Facts

On census night in 2011, there were 105,237 homeless people throughout Australia. That amounts to 49 for every ten thousand people. This was an increase of 4% on the 2006 figures. The sheer number of homeless had risen by 17%, taking into account the general rise in population.

These figures from the ABS contain some other interesting information – 56% of people experiencing homelessness were male and 44% female. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were over-represented in homelessness data, making up 25% of the homeless population compared to just 2.5% of the Australian population.

The number of rough sleepers has reduced (6% of the total) and yet, at the same time, there has been a significant increase (23% of the total) in the number of people who are accommodated in homelessness services.

Some of the facts of which we should all be aware are that one in every 39 Australian children under 4 years of age sleeps in a homeless shelter. Half of the people seeking crisis accommodation each day are turned away. Almost 80% of families are turned away. The data tells us that 17% are under the age of 12 and 27% are under the age of 18.

Because of the kind of accommodation – or lack thereof – families are the most likely group to be turned away, while two out of every three children who accompany a sole parent are turned away each day.

Wesley Mission provides accommodation and support for up to 600 adults and children who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness. We are usually close to 100% full.

Another interesting statistic to keep in mind is the growing number of older homeless people and the lack of funding which would make it possible to run meaningful services for this vulnerable group of people.

The simple truth is that we don’t have enough public housing. This is a far greater discussion point than that of moving people from one place to another.

The face of homelessness has radically changed and the picture that people have in their minds of the old man lying on a park bench with a bottle of beer is not helpful. Homeless people are just as likely to be:

  • Younger men and women
  • People facing mental health challenges
  • Women and children escaping domestic violence
  • Young people who are victims of dysfunctional family life

Rev Noreen Towers, who opened our Wesley Fair in November, pioneered our work amongst the homeless in inner city Sydney over 50 years ago. The inner city of Sydney in the early 1960s was characterised by ageing and destitute men. Noreen and her team of workers met with homeless men who were struggling with a range of personal problems, but essentially they had no food and no bed. They were sleeping rough and their average age was 60. We have moved on from that time and that demographic. Today’s homeless person is just as likely to be female, aged in her early 30s with children in tow – and, as we have already established, quite often escaping domestic violence.

In today’s environment, individuals and families can often find themselves a long way from home and unable to secure accommodation in the private rental market. Such people become disconnected from their community networks and any family support they have. This results in social isolation and a loss of identity.

Despite what we might think, obtaining food is not always one of the most pressing concerns of the homeless. In one of our earliest research papers using the Deakin University wellbeing scale, a survey found that many of our homeless people are well satisfied with the food they receive or have the opportunity of obtaining. Their needs are much broader and might include health screenings, legal services and the need for warmth or cool depending on the season.

Recent changes in policy

In these comments, I specifically refer to the NSW policy with regard to homelessness and some comments relate directly to the inner city situation in Sydney. I have to say that ‘Going Home Staying Home’ has bridged both the Labor Government and the current Liberal Government of this State. Its chief objectives presented to us by the Department of Family & Community Services have been to:

  • Increase the focus on prevention and early intervention
  • Make it easier for clients to access the right service at the right time
  • Better match supply with demand
  • Develop the industry and its workforce
  • Strengthen the focus on quality
  • Reduce contract red tape

In our Edward Eagar Lodge property in the city centre, we use the congregate model. Each resident has small private living quarters (bed and cupboards, etc.) but shares bathroom, dining room and recreational facilities. We have a resident chef and the meals are at organised times.

However, the tender process in the autumn of 2014 had a significant impact on our thinking about our future at Edward Eagar Lodge, most significantly in terms of it being able to deliver a model that provides greater independence than the congregate model.

The policy changes that have taken place in recent years have been driven not only by economic factors, but also by a genuine desire to build a model that reduces the level of homelessness and puts the need of the homeless person at the centre of the service provision. The success of changes varies greatly, but the intention is genuine.

Influencing policies is a major part of what I consider my own role is in the homelessness space and one that we must take seriously if we are to see the best outcome for those who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Christian perspectives

The Christian community considers the world in which we live, albeit a fallen world, to be a place where we have a responsibility for each other. There is a good deal of material that would remind us that we will be judged by our attitude to neighbours, visitors and strangers. Our underlying ethos is that we reach out to others because God has first reached out to us in Christ (1 John 4:11).

In a biblical sense, we remind ourselves that God is called by many names throughout scripture and many of his names emphasise his great love for the poor:

  • Defender of the fatherless and widows (Deut. 10:18; Psalm 10:16-18; and Jeremiah 22:16)
  • Protector of the poor (Psalm 12:5)
  • Rescuer of the poor (1 Sam. 2:8; Psalm 35:10; Isaiah 19:20; and Jeremiah 20:13)
  • Provider of the poor (Psalm 68:10; 146:7; and Isaiah 41:17)
  • Saviour of the poor and refuge of the poor (Psalm 14:6; 34:6; and Isaiah 25:4)

The same scriptures have something strong to say about what we are to do. We are told that God blesses those who bless the poor (Psalm 41:1-3; Proverbs 14:21 and Isaiah 58:6-10). The flip side of this is that he promises to judge those who oppress the poor (Deut. 27:19; Isaiah 10:1-4; Ezekiel 18:12-13 and 16:49).

When Bono was invited to be the speaker at the White House at the Annual Prayer Breakfast, he was reluctant because of his very tentative link with the church – and yet what he said is worthy of note:
“The one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor people play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.
From charity to justice, the good news is yet to come. There is so much more to do. There’s a gigantic chasm between the scale of the emergency and the scale of the response. And finally, it’s not about charity after all is it? It’s about justice. Let me repeat that: It’s not about charity, it’s about justice.”

Jesus ministered to those on the very edges of society and we see it in the gospels in relation to the poor, the hungry, the sick and the outcast. We are challenged to do the same and this will mean that we not only seek justice but also walk alongside those who are disempowered. We need to embrace approaches that are flexible and effective, as well as being authentic responses to the needs of the communities of which we are a part.

Wesley Congregational impact and response

Because of our specific city centre location and the inevitable openness of our property, we see more of the kind of people who might fit into the bracket of homelessness than many other churches – even some that share the city centre with us. Some of the issues we explored at our last Mission Council with regard to mental health sit side by side with the issue of homelessness.

As an example, on a Sunday evening we have quite a number of people who would not easily fit into a local suburban congregation. We have one gentleman who snores during worship and because of his size and health it is quite loud. We have another gentleman who suffers with health issues that causes him to make intermittent loud noises, which are challenging for those who sit around him. One evening, a man walked up in the middle of my address to tell me that God had instructed him to preach – not me. We were able to help him gently to his seat and the service progressed. You can imagine my unease when I saw the same gentleman on the front row at the Opera House on Easter Day!

Those without a home, those without money and those who present with real challenges in relation to mental illness may make us feel very uncomfortable, but perhaps we still have a lot to learn about what it means to be like Christ. We may even find ourselves more akin to those hurrying along the Jericho road in the story of Jesus, rather than like the Samaritan who stopped and cared.

A dozen more examples come to mind of how every week we have to tackle the reality of living in a setting where the challenge of homelessness impacts our life.

Some of the simple pointers that I hope we have established have been:

  • We never give money in the form of cash
  • We can give food where appropriate
  • We may help with clothes, but only a change of clothes
  • We offer a great gift in giving time to such people
  • We can discern such people’s real needs when we listen to them
  • We can point them in the direction of help, often within Wesley Mission

Looking out for each other is part of the task of any Christian community and, quite specifically in relation to the theme before us, we must identify those who are ‘at risk’ of homelessness. Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of what a short step it is from a stable situation to that of homelessness.

There are times when our prophetic ministry must come to the fore and question accepted behaviour in society at large – for example, we may find ourselves talking about the prevalence of gambling, the constant challenge of alcohol and other drugs; it may mean us raising the issue of the selfishness in communities.

In summing up, I believe there are three priorities for the life of any congregation:

  • We must be aware of the complexity of homelessness
  • We must see homeless people as people just like ourselves
  • We must be aware of appropriate boundaries and the limitations as to what we can actually do

In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we have a description of the nature of the incarnation of God amongst his people in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). The two words that speak clearly in this gift of God in Jesus Christ are “grace and truth”.

When we are seeking to help those who are homeless, it is crucial that we hold these two words together. They represent the creative tension in which we are always ministering. We acknowledge the destructive potential of grace when it is detached from truth – and yet we also recognise the fact that truth has to be understood alongside grace. In the Person of Jesus Christ, grace and truth cannot be separated. From this starting point, reaching out to the homeless in any congregation can never be dismissed as something we don’t do!