LONDON – There are an estimated 2,000 homeless people in London and the church is trying to reach each one of them with practical support and some much-needed tender loving care.
Some people look away when they see them. Other people even cross the street to avoid them. Some people rifle in their pockets for whatever change they have and others are even bold enough to stop for a chat. But when night falls and the streets empty, the homeless remain and there with them are dozens of Christian volunteers doing what they can to help them safely through another night.
Norman Coe left his job with a good company 12 years ago to become a driver for a Christian soup run in Glasgow and has never looked back. Now settled in north-east London, he admits the pay is not good and the work is unglamorous, but the Gospel message and Jesus’ command to “feed my sheep” compel him to go out night after night.
“Being involved in this work for quite a long time now, I’ve realized there are not many people who would take up the challenge to do things to help people on the streets and I see this as an opening for the church,” he says.
For Norman, the soup run offers a chance for the church to get out and meet people it would not normally meet and is very much about faith in action, a case of “share the Gospel, and where necessary, use words.”
He doesn’t overtly share his faith with those who come to pick up their soup and sandwich from the van but it is not uncommon for questions about God and the meaning of suffering to arise in conversation and if they ask, he is more than willing to speak about his faith.
“I’m often surprised by their spirituality. They will often come and tell me a bit about when they went to Sunday school or used to go to church and that’s often an opening for a chat.
“A lot of the guys are Eastern European, Polish, and they are quite staunch about the Catholic Church, so they all have some kind of faith.
“Some people have restored the faith they’d perhaps lost, which is quite lovely to see.”
The soup run isn’t only an opportunity for the church to meet people outside its walls; it’s also a vital opportunity for the homeless to break out of the isolation and hopelessness that are so much part of being on the streets.
Nearly every homeless person has a tragic story to tell, says Rudi Richardson, founder of Streetlytes, a small charity distributing food near Victoria Station in central London. Many of its volunteers are recovering addicts and people who were once homeless, just like him.
Rudi was homeless for 10 years and a drug addict for much of that time. Memories of the sexual abuse he suffered as a child had begun to surface and there was, he says, a point in his life when he just “gave up on the spirit”.
He explains: “A lot of homeless are addicts and alcoholics, a lot have been sexually or physically abused, and a lot of them self harm. They come with this package of pain.
“When the public see a homeless person they just think he’s a bum but what they don’t realize is that no one winds up in that condition by happenstance.
"It begins on the inside. When the inside breaks down then the environment outside is going to match what’s happening on the inside. They are homeless inside themselves.”
For Rudi, drugs and alcohol were a way of dealing with the pain and the streets were the one place he could identify with the people – they had all trodden a similar path. That’s why the most important thing he feels he can give to those on the streets now is not the food or toiletry bags he and the volunteers spend hours preparing. It’s the TLC.
“We don’t have all the answers but I know that just by doing what we are doing and getting out there and giving them dignity and worth and empathy, and not patronizing them, that’s holy ground where the Holy Spirit can start moving. At the end of the day it’s the Holy Spirit. There ain’t nothing we can do. I already tried that!”
Streetlytes relies on individual donations and donor companies to keep up its outreach. It has a partnership with Sainsburys supermarkets and sandwich and coffee chains Pret A Manger and EAT to collect some of the food they don’t sell during the day and distribute it among the homeless.
When the van-load of volunteers and cooked meals reaches Streetlytes' regular pitch near the station, the crowd of homeless in all its variety is already there waiting for them and by the end of the night every last scoop of pasta and cup of hot tea is gone.
Whether a warm summer’s evening or freezing cold winter night, Rudi and the team make sure they are out there, and at the end of the night, he rounds up the volunteers – Christian and non-Christian alike – to say a prayer of thanks to God for their work and to ask for His care over the people they have just served.
For Rudi and the volunteers who were once standing on the other side of the food table, the blessing is two-way.
“By giving back it adds to the quality of our sobriety in a holistic way,” he says. “It brings us to the realization that by the grace of God I am clean and sober today and can be of service to someone else.
“It’s not only the person we are engaging with who is blessed, but we in serving them are also blessed. That helps us stay on our path and keep from sliding.”
Drugs, alcohol, gambling or mental health problems are some of the reasons why people become homeless. Others are immigrants or failed asylum seekers who are not entitled to benefits. Those working with people on the streets are quick to stress that the deciding factor in becoming homeless is not usually whether a tragedy has befallen an individual, but whether they have the friends or family around them to buoy them up until better times return. Homeless people often come from abusive or broken homes so if they fall on hard times, many of them have nowhere to turn.
“It begins with something that just tips them over the edge but they don’t have the support network in place at that moment to help them. It can happen to anyone. That’s what I’ve learned,” says Lidija Mavra.
She is the co-founder of Sock Mob, a group of volunteers which hands out clean socks to the homeless in central London as a way of “breaking the ice” and helping to build up the “soft skills” of people on the streets. Local authorities in London are against soup runs and other homeless outreach projects, claiming that they just perpetuate the problem by removing the motivation for homeless people to get off the streets. She argues, however, that the soup runs are needed because of the shortage of hostels for the homeless.
“You can’t just come off the street when you choose to,” she said. “You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get off the streets. You have to been seen by an outreach team a few times. Then you have to be registered. Then you have to wait for a hostel and if you are good you can spend a week in that hostel and then you may be moved somewhere else.
“There are various steps you have to go through before you can get a place of your own and it can take months or years.
“Imagine if within that time there was nothing to feed you. The soup run is an emergency response to a situation that shouldn’t even be there.”
Norman agrees: “Our food must be extremely delicious for people to make themselves homeless just so they can come to our soup van! We don’t want people to stay in that situation and we want to help them to move on.”
With homeless people often sleeping in church doorways or in churchyards, many churches in London are aware of the problem and are opening their church halls at night to give rough sleepers a safe, warm place to spend the night, and a hot dinner, breakfast and shower.
Norman says any church can run a night shelter, large or small, so long as the ground rules are made clear – no swearing, no drinking, no drugs, no fighting.
“I think the church is at a place now where we have to get involved in the community more and in London where we have such diversity in ethnic groups and cultures, Jesus told us to go into the world and share the Good News. In a sense, all the world has come here, it’s just on our doorstep,” he said.
Rudi also sees outreach to the homeless as something that the church must do.
He said: “Jesus related to the lepers, the Samaritans and the despised so the church must help the outcast and marginalized. They too need to feel and know that they are a child of God and a ‘somebody.'”