Here's my reflection on the closing of our winter night shelter at the end of the season.
It'll be in our church magazine this Sunday
Home is where the heart is. An Englishman’s home is his castle. Home is where we kick our shoes off, put our feet up, sink into our favourite arm chair and feel safe and at ease. Home is where we are surrounded by the people and things that give our lives shape and meaning; our loved ones, our books and music, crochet and cross stitch frames, jigsaw puzzles and board games.
We take home for granted. We can’t imagine being without one. And while we’ve worked hard for it, it’s just there, solid and dependable. We leave it in the morning knowing that it will still be there when we return in the evening.
I was thinking all this as I wheeled Maggie’s* shopping trolley into the place in the bug hut where we’re storing it. Maggie and her brother, Frank, have a shopping trolley each; it’s where they keep all the possessions (spare clothes and underwear, a couple of books and various nick-nacks) that they are unable to carry with them during the day as they move between the library, the housing department, the doctor, social services.
They don’t have a home.
They and six other guests who had lived together – shared a home – at our winter night shelter were leaving their stuff with us as they left on the last morning to see what the day had in store for them. I neatly stored their various bags against the time when they’d need them again. Helen hugged her pillow and told me to take great care of it because her mum gave it to her.
As I put things away I was also thinking about what the Bible says about home, how in the Old Testament the picture of life in the Kingdom of God could be summed up as everyone sitting under their own vine, within the confines of their home, content and at peace. When Isaiah looks forward to the time when God will make all things new, part of what he sees is a land where ‘they will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit. No longer will they build houses and others live in them or plant and others eat.’ (Isaiah 65:21-22). It’s a vision of a life that satisfies the longing of every human heart, a life lived in a place where we belong, where we are at home. ‘Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven for beginners,’ said the American Presbyterian minister and social reformer, Charles Henry Parkhurst
And as I stacked duvets that we’re keeping in case anyone needs one because they’ll be spending the wee small hours on the night bus touring London on the upper deck or curling up behind the back doors of Primark or McDonald’s, I thought of Bernie. He’s a larger than life Irish construction worker who came to us in January following a break down in a relationship and an accident that left him with a broken leg and unable to work. In his early 40s, he’d worked for the past twenty years building homes and offices around London. ‘It’s ironic,’ he said to me over breakfast one morning, ‘I’ve built thousands of homes but not one for myself’. And I thought of Isaiah 65:22 and wondered when he’d have a place of his own.
Well, Bernie was housed and got his job as a crane driver back (his gaffer rated him as a key part of his team). His life is back on track. And in no small measure that’s because of the winter night shelter, the team of volunteers who every day have provided an evening meal, a warm, dry place to sleep and breakfast. But more than that, the shelter has been a home where guests have found friendship and community. On the morning we closed, they stood in the doorway of the bug hut making sure they each had one another’s mobile number. There were tears and hugs, expressions of thanks and a pledge to stay in touch.
The press has been full of stories about the UK’s housing crisis that we don’t need to rehearse here. But the truth of it is that many vulnerable people will be living on the streets as you read these words and many more will be living in crowded, insecure accommodation where they barely feel safe, let alone able to prosper.
So, let’s pray for them. And let’s pray for government – local and national – seemingly paralysed in the face of a mounting crisis of homelessness that they will have the gumption to do something about it.
A final story. Mehmet is an Iranian born, Swedish national who has been working as a dentist in Chislehurst for the past 12 years. From a patient he contracted hepatitis C for which he about to start treatment. He is already an insulin dependent diabetic. Last autumn his marriage collapsed under the weight of financial and health pressures. He came to the shelter in February. I’m not sure I want to live in a country where a gentle man like this with obvious and pressing health needs will be living on the streets, insecure and increasingly at risk of his health deteriorating.
So, let’s pray for these folk, for the council that it will rise the challenge of homelessness, and for the management group of the winter shelter as we learn the lessons of this year (many) and make plans for next year. The dream is that there will be somewhere better than a three month hand-to-mouth project. So can we pray that God is in that dream?
And we can do this with a spring in our step and hope in heart remembering the words of Desmond Tutu: ‘All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend his Kingdom of shalom – peace and wholeness – of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation. God is transfiguring the world right at this very moment through us because God believes in us and God loves us.’
(*all the names of guests have been changed and since writing this, Maggie and Frank have been given temporary accommodation; the others are still waiting)