Responding to rough sleepers

Many people sleep rough in central London and there's every sign that increasing poverty and diminishing resources are leading to a worsening situation. It's heart-rending to see someone with meagre possessions and it often isn't easy to know how to respond .

We're very familiar with all this through the rough sleepers who use our church portico and in talking with the brilliant specialist agencies that work in this field we've learned that there are no neat solutions. We're open to learning more but this post describes the understanding that we've reached at this time.

1. We see the person and recognise that they begin a relationship with us when they sleep here
We try hard to see the real person, rather than a category or a problem. We believe that every human being has God-given dignity and worth. Rough sleepers are real people, with their own stories, likes and dislikes, good points and bad. So whenever a new rough sleeper appears on our portico, we try to learn their name and introduce ourselves. We believe that God calls us all into community and that no one is a mere individual living a life in isolation.

2. We're unafraid of messiness
Our reading of the Bible assures us that God does not work along decent, neat and predictable lines. We see people as glorious, the crown of God's creation and yet we are sure that every human life has its share of disorder and ugliness, often deeply concealed. We believe God embraces humanity and that in story of the birth of Jesus we read of a homeless God and a refugee God, whose family fled to another country to escape hardship and persecution. Rough sleeping and homelessness makes us experience our own powerlessness to fix things. We resist the false solutions of avoidance and pretence. We may not be lavishly hospitable but we try to be open and tolerant.

3. We're real about the bigger picture
Rough sleeping is not healthy. It's damaging for the person themselves and makes them vulnerable to harm. It has a negative impact on other people. We believe that a truly gospel response involves balancing grace and truth. We will try to work towards change and transformation in the situation and that will always include aiming to get a person out of rough-sleeping altogether, not just on our property.

4. We address anti-social behaviour
Violence, abuse, drunkenness and drug use are not tolerated on our premises and we make no exception for those who sleep rough. We will call the police to deal immediately with any anti-social behaviour that impacts on the welfare of other people and we will be especially mindful of the implications for children and vulnerable people who use our buildings.

5. We make referrals
Islington is well served by a range of really good workers and agencies who regularly meet with people who sleep rough. We make referrals through Streetlink as soon as we can. We encourage other people to do the same. There is no reason that anyone has to sleep on the streets and the best outcome is always to help people make connection with the agencies that can help them most effectively. We know our limitations and we recognise that many rough sleepers have complex needs, sometimes including mental ill health and substance abuse, for which specialist support is needed.

6. We don't enable or support unhealthy lifestyles
We never give money. Agencies that work with homelessness confirm that handing out money is very damaging as it is often used to buy drink and drugs. We are willing to give basic food and drink to a hungry or thirsty person who asks, as long as it is not sustaining a worsening situation. The portico of the church is a very public place and we find that rough sleepers regularly receive far more food and drink than they can consume. This can quickly lead to a build-up of rotting food which can attract rats and disease.

6. We want to see change in society
The social implications of Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God are clear. We believe that rough sleeping and poverty are signs of the brokenness in our society, for which we must all take responsibility. The wider picture includes issues such as housing, alcohol pricing, mental health support, immigration and benefit rules.

7. We want to help other people think about their response
We recognise that each person that is faced with someone begging or rough sleeping has personal choices to make about their response. Our suggestions include:
  • Never give money to a person begging. It's a criminal offence to beg in public and giving money is usually destructive.
  • If you feel that you should give food or drink, ask the person first. People in busy places often have more than enough.
  • If you come across a rough sleeper, make a referral to Streetlink. It only takes five minutes and your referral could make all the difference and change a life.
  • Never endanger yourself or others. Be ready to call the police if necessary, especially if you or someone else is at risk of harm.
  • Be wise in listening to a story. Reality and appearances can be very different.
  • Support public campaigns and charities that address poverty and homelessness.
  • Learn more about the issue of rough sleeping and homelessness.
  • Pray. Pray for rough sleepers in your area. Pray for the agencies and workers that support them. Pray for those who are in increasing poverty and vulnerable to losing their home. Pray that you might see, listen and learn.