Iain Gordon, December 2007
However many new houses we build across the country, they alone will not be enough to end homelessness in our communities. Homelessness is about more than houses; people who have been homeless will tell you that homelessness is largely about relationships.
The image of a person sleeping in a doorway or underpass no longer epitomises the problem of homelessness in our communities. We have moved on: we now know about the concept of hidden homelessness – people sleeping on friends' and families' floors and sofas.
In Scotland, over the past five years, two-thirds of the total number of people who present to local authorities as homeless say that the reason for their homelessness is the breakdown of a significant supportive relationship. That relationship can be with a spouse or partner, friend, employer or a local community.
In addition, research done by the Scottish government identifies isolation and loneliness as the main reason for people failing to resettle successfully in the community following a period of homelessness.
Addressing the underlying causes and damaging effects of homelessness requires supporting each homeless person to identify the issues which have made them homeless and develop a plan to address those issues. This inevitably involves helping people to look at their relationships and how to improve them. The reasons behind relationship breakdown are often complex and cover many aspects of a person's life.
Building supportive relationships
Work done by Bethany Christian Trust and others has shown that a network of supportive social relationships helps people to settle into a new home and community. Similarly, early mediation work, particularly among young people, can prevent homelessness from occurring as households stay together, or if people do move on then they do so in a planned and supported way.
In short, damaged or broken relationships are often the cause of a person's episode of homelessness and strong, supportive relationships can bring that episode to an end.
All of Bethany Christian Trust's work preventing people from becoming homeless or becoming homeless again is dedicated to building and sustaining supportive relationships and helping people to resettle successfully in their community. We define a truly settled state as a condition where someone feels and is:
• physically and emotionally secure
• in control of their life and their home
• actively involved in a network of supportive social relationships
• in possession of a sense of purpose
• working to achieve dreams and aspirations.
Every Bethany service is a resettlement service. From emergency night shelters, through community and individual supported accommodation, to furniture provision and community education support, we aim to help someone identify a purpose, dreams and aspirations, and then support them on their journey toward feeling settled.
This means valuing each person and their place in society. Or in practical terms, supporting people to overcome issues and barriers to independent living and at the same time working towards building supportive networks that help them move on and settle into local communities. Supportive relationships within communities are critical to the success of any efforts to tackle homelessness.
Working with communities
Historically in homelessness work, organisations typically work with the homeless person to increase their relationship and home-building skills and don't work with the local community. That is like working with one half of a broken relationship. When the two parties are reintroduced, the relationship fails again. At best the community will ignore the person moving in, at worst they will reject them on the basis of prejudice and assumption.
To tackle homelessness at its root we need to develop a dual focus: on the individual homeless person and on relationships in the community in which they want to live. Working with over 1800 community volunteers, Bethany services help local communities by supporting homeless and vulnerable people to take up volunteering and work placement opportunities, and by locating services in local community venues.
‘Passing the Baton' is a project working with communities to help formerly homeless people resettle well by welcoming them into existing supportive social networks. ‘Bethany Homemaker' provides furniture and white goods to make new accommodation feel like home, and the Bethany Community Education team provide interactions for homeless people and communities to work together for stronger, more supportive relationships.
As part of the broader church we have a Christ-given duty, according to Matthew 25, to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the marginalised in society. One way that we can fulfil that duty is by welcoming formerly homeless people into supportive networks in our own communities. In this way we will be providing a very practical and caring demonstration of the gospel.