Hope for the Homeless
With private rents soaring and a national housing shortage, homelessness is on the increase. More than 81,000 households* were found to be homeless in England last year. What more can churches do to meet the needs of such a vulnerable section of society? Ed Walker, Baptist church member and founder of charity Hope into Action, has an innovative way
It was getting late but Linda decided to try another hotel – maybe she would have success with this one. She spoke to someone on the reception desk, they barely looked up before dismissing her, ‘No, we don’t have any jobs available.’ Linda left, disheartened. She found a doorway and spent the rest of the night watching the night-time buzz of London peak and then dip as clubbers and workers disappeared home. This was the first night of many that Linda, fleeing an abusive relationship, would spend on the streets.
For Linda, homelessness led to drink, led to prostitution, led to drug addiction. What hope did she have? Who was going to help her now?
Not how it should be
It was stories like Linda’s that made Ed Walker wonder why the church wasn’t doing more to support the homeless and vulnerable. Returning to live in the UK after spending nine years working overseas in disaster response, Ed became acutely aware of the often unintentional but very real separation of the church and the poor. “Surely this is not how it should be,” he says. “Churches should be full of vulnerable people.”
"Christian wealth can be the answer to the homeless situation in this country"
One day, while taking his young daughter to a local park, Ed met a guy who’d just left prison and had nowhere to go. “I couldn’t find him anywhere to live,” Ed recalls. “No churches were doing anything. He had nowhere to go because he had no one to go to – a lot of people experience relational poverty. And yet the church can provide a richness of relationships people have not had before.”
This experience prompted Ed to think and pray about what he should do. He sought advice from his minister, Revd David Whitlock of Bretton Baptist Church in Peterborough. David encouraged him to continue to pursue the ideas and dreams that God was seemingly stirring up in Ed’s heart.
And so, with the support of the church, and using up their savings, Ed and his wife bought a house in Peterborough and rented it out to an ex-offender and a man who’d been living in a hostel for eight years. Bretton Baptist Church helped support the tenants. Soon, more houses were bought, more vulnerable people were given homes and more churches got involved providing mentors, meals, friends and a place for the homeless to belong. After one year they had four houses up and running. And Hope into Action, a charity whose vision is to enable churches to house the homeless, was born.
“If we can use the capital in people’s bank accounts we can unleash a revolution,” says Ed. “Christian wealth can be the answer to the homeless situation in this country. Just imagine what our mighty God could do if we shared our wealth with the poor.”
"Success is both getting people out of church and getting people into church"
The model is fairly simple – an investor (an individual or a group or a church) buys a property with the express purpose of renting it out to people who may have little hope of living in a decent home; people coming out of prison, out of rehab, former sex workers, the homeless. A house is only ever purchased with the full support of a local church – volunteers from the church provide practical and spiritual support to enable the tenants to thrive in a community again. And Hope into Action takes care of the more specialised needs – such as referrals, benefit applications and needs assessments –provides a keyworker and looks after rent collection.
The first house was opened in 2010, now Hope into Action has 28 houses in eight cities in partnership with 24 churches.
“We want Christians to use their wealth and share it with the poor,” explains Ed. “It’s still a sound investment but it’s also a social investment – it serves the poor and the church long term.”
Closing the gap between the church and the poor
For Ed, Hope into Action serves two purposes; it transforms the lives of vulnerable people and it closes the gap between the church and the poor. “Success is both getting people out of church and getting people into church,” Ed says. “When we engage with vulnerable people we meet Jesus.”
"Poverty alleviation means journeying with people not just handing out donations”
But engaging with vulnerable people can be a risky endeavour. “People who take this on need to prepare for disappointment,” Ed says candidly. “The concept that people get sorted over night is a lie – it sets us up for disappointment. At a Hope into Action conference in March I told the story of two girls who were sharing one of the houses – one got baptised, the other I met in jail recently. It’s tough. It’s part of what we’re calling churches to do.”
Alongside the lows, come the highs of seeing lives transformed. One such life is Rob’s – a man who was on drugs for 20 years. Now he’s been clean for 14 months. “He’s led a Christianity Explored course,” Ed shares. “People have paid off his debts. He’s working as an intern with Hope into Action. He’s been reunited with his son. He’s found a home and security. His dream now is to help others. Poverty alleviation means journeying with people not just handing out donations.”
New family member
For Angie, a volunteer mentor from Peterborough, journeying with someone has meant gaining “a new family member”. Angie had always had a heart for the homeless, so when her church got involved with Hope into Action, she was excited. “The person I mentor feels part of the family and is now volunteering himself,” Angie says. “The project is giving him hope, and he is beginning to trust people. He is now part of the church, which has given him a new beginning and new friends, and has significantly changed his lifestyle. I helped him to get in touch with his mother so hopefully that will signal a new beginning for that relationship.”
“I think it’s been an eye opener for members of the congregation,” says Revd Adrian Holdstock, vicar of the church Angie attends, St Mark’s, Peterborough. “They sometimes find it difficult to understand how people can get into a situation where they have dropped out of the bottom of the way society works. One of our tenants said to us, ‘please can you take me shopping? I don’t know what I’m looking for.’ It’s not complicated support that’s needed – it’s tender loving care.
"At some point in the future we want to go into a church and expect them to run a house for the homeless"
“It’s really exciting to see a practical way that we can do mission,” Adrian continues. “We can serve our neighbours and learn about people whom we often just walk by on the street because we don’t know how to engage with somebody who’s addicted, or somebody who’s homeless.”
But what of Linda’s story? Projects like Hope into Action didn’t exist in Linda’s time of need. She could so easily have been overlooked but two dedicated women told her how much Jesus loved her. They supported her and cared for her. Now, she is happily married, works for a housing association and runs a celebrate recovery course. But perhaps best of all she is using her experience to support a Hope into Action house through her church. “What a great opportunity it is to help support someone who wants to turn their life around but doesn’t know how,” she says.
“We want to give churches the belief that they can do this,” concludes Ed. “Thirty years ago if you went into a church you didn’t expect to see a microphone, or an Alpha or Christianity Explored course but you can now find these in most churches. At some point in the future we want to go into a church and expect them to run a house for the homeless. Often homeless people go to churches to ask for help and the church refers them to the council; we want it to be the other way round.”