I was homeless for well over a year, from 1983 to 1984, so I had experience of being homeless during all four seasons.
My homelessness was a direct effect of mental illness. I was working in a library. I had suffered from mental illness and was being treated, but I was taken off my medication, and, as a result, there was a very sudden and very severe deterioration in my mental health. I lost insight into my condition and brushed off any suggestion for example from my family that I should see a doctor.
I am far from unique in that my experience of homelessness was the result of mental illness. Research suggests that over 60% of homeless people have mental health problems. While your church may not be able to respond directly to mental illness, it’s important that churches are inclusive and able to respond where possible – getting someone the help they need may ensure they are able to remain in their home. I was a member of a United Reformed church at that time. It may have helped if my minister had also echoed my family’s suggestions that I seek medical help. I would also argue that if a person has a Christian faith they are much less likely to experience anxiety and depression.
After developing delusions about colleagues, I walked off a good job which up till then I had enjoyed. The exact circumstances leading to my homelessness were that early on in my illness I gave away my entire life savings and so had little money. I headed to Scotland, where I had no home. Any money I had came from claims for benefits.
From time to time, when I had a little spare money, I would spend the night in bed and breakfast accommodation, but I believed that microphones depriving me of privacy were attached to any accommodation I occupied. This made me feel that I was better off sleeping on park benches, so that’s where I spent most nights just in my clothes, with no sleeping bag or blankets.
I liked to keep as clean as possible, so I made use of the showers in the train station. I also used a laundrette (I had two sets of clothes). But this meant that I had less money for food and drink, and, although I was able to eat quite healthily, I lost a significant amount of weight. Somebody once gave me a flask of hot drink, but mostly I was just ignored by passers-by.
Breakdown in family relationships is a common source of homelessness. Possibly I was unusual in that I was not estranged from my family. I said little to my family about my circumstances, but had they realised I was sleeping on park benches more than one member of my family would have offered me accommodation.
I spent the year almost entirely on my own. Eventually I realized that my situation was grim and unsustainable, and I returned to my family and was admitted to a mental health unit, where I started taking the medication that would eventually return me to full health.
Homelessness is not simply an issue for individuals. It is an issue for society as a whole. I believe the church should use both its material resources and its human resources to make a significant contribution to alleviating such issues as homelessness, poverty and economic deprivation. My church is involved in the annual provision of shelter for twenty people who would otherwise be sleeping rough. Churches are now also thinking about addressing the structural causes of homelessness. A major reason for the increase in homelessness in the UK in recent years has been a shortage of affordable housing. If your church has a way to address this, you should take it.
What will you do to end homelessness?
Over the last few months, we’ve discovered that it’s possible to practically end rough sleeping overnight. We can’t return to the way things were before. We need to reimagine how we respond to homelessness. We want to start a conversation about what we can do differently to end homelessness. To do this, we need to invite those with lived experiences of homelessness to the centre of our discussions. Over the coming months, we’ll be amplifying their voices, sharing their stories and asking them what they want churches to do.
Richard explained two ways in which a church could possibly prevent homelessness for somebody. Take a look to see how your church could respond.
They could be more responsive to mental health issues. One example may be to get training in mental health first aid training. You can find out more here, although your denomination may run courses, which will save you money. There are also some free basic courses online.
They could respond to the lack of affordable housing. One example of a group of churches building affordable housing using their land is Keswick Community Housing Trust.
Richard’s name has been changed.