Bishop of Southwark supports Homelessness Reduction Bill

On 24th February 2017 the House of Lords considered the Homelessness Reduction Bill, a Private Member’s Bill from Lord Best and Bob Blackman MP. The Bishop of Southwark, Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke in support:

SouthwarkThe Lord Bishop of Southwark: My Lords, in common with the sentiments already expressed, I strongly support this Bill with its emphasis on the reduction of homelessness. Like others, I am heartened by the cross-party work that has been done, not least by the Government, to bring this important legislation to this point. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Best, on his sponsorship of the Bill and, in another place, Mr Bob Blackman, the Member for Harrow East. I trust that we will expedite matters at all stages of the Bill and fully endorse what was said by my friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester.

Under no circumstances is homelessness an easy or positive expression of living. There is also the twin malady in a country where housing provision, especially in the capital, is often at ruinous expense. Homelessness is always born of crisis and once embarked upon rapidly erodes physical and mental well-being. I particularly welcome, therefore, the expansion in the Bill of the rights of single homeless people, to which the previous speaker alluded. Too often people go to their councils for help, are turned away because they are not considered to be in “priority need”, and end up sleeping rough. It is a dreadful scenario to which the appropriate solution must be remedial action: relevant services, including housing provision; and a relational response, which often comes from voluntary and community organisations.

Across my own diocese, a number of projects respond magnificently to the need. In Greenwich, operating out of 10 church venues an ecumenical endeavour runs a night shelter every night of the winter, staffed by 120 volunteers. Meanwhile, 28 churches in the London Boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, through a project called Robes, have welcomed 70 guests for the night each winter, with the help of over 400 volunteers. I declare my interest as a patron. I myself participate in the annual sponsored sleep-out in the grounds of Southwark Cathedral to raise money for this project. Last year it raised over £100,000, which has funded the project and provided for a full-time support worker. In Wandsworth, churches do similar work with a charity called Glass Door. Again in my diocese, the ecumenical Croydon Churches Floating Shelter was set up in 2004, a partnership of 22 churches offering overnight hospitality to guests, from November to March each year. Your Lordships will be familiar with the inspirational work of Street Pastors, also an ecumenical endeavour, which brings a non-judgmental encounter and help throughout the night to the streets of our cities and plays a significant part in reducing crime.

Only last Sunday on my visit to the Church of St Peter Norbiton, I was able to see for myself the offices of Kingston Churches Action on Homelessness, and in particular the Joel Community, operating in what was until recently the church hall, offering shelter, food and friendship and accommodating over 70 people a year experiencing homelessness. The aim is a fully tailored service for each person. A repeat factor in the story of many of those experiencing homelessness is isolation, which is in itself soul destroying. In response, the Joel Community seeks to provide a focus of welcome and hospitality within a community setting. This, in common with all the examples I have cited, but in a still more focused manner, is a relational approach seeking to bring people through the crisis of homelessness to a better place. It can be life-saving. Thus, this Bill, if implemented effectively, should ensure that more individuals will at last receive meaningful assistance to prevent or relieve homelessness.

One group of individuals whom I hope are already covered by the existing definitions of priority need are military veterans. I support the words of the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup, on this matter. The Armed Forces covenant, to which the| Church of England nationally is a signatory, signals important considerations in this area. Veterans, for whatever reason, still form a disproportionately high element among the single homeless. I pay tribute to Veterans Aid and its work housing such veterans in New Belvedere House, a stone’s throw from my old rectory in the parish of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, in the Diocese of London, where I served in the 1990s, and to Alabare, founded by the Reverend John Proctor, a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Clifton, which also works among homeless veterans and others.

Changes in legislation will not be enough on their own. Legislation will avail us little if suitable accommodation is not available in areas where there is a chronic shortage of affordable housing. On the structural level, like the noble Lord, Lord Best, I pay tribute to Her Majesty’s Government for making available £61 million of additional money to local authorities for the years 2017-18 and 2019-20 to meet the costs arising from the Bill. However, following on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Grender, said about the London Borough of Lewisham, your Lordships may wish to know that London borough councils alone estimate that their additional burdens under the Bill will be £77 million in the first year. It is important that new demands be properly funded. None the less, I remain of the conviction that our endeavours in this critical area will fail without the necessary relational approach.

I have a further concern as regards regulations due to be laid by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions which restrict entitlement to the housing costs element of universal credit for some 18 to 21 year-olds. For many young people the financial support provided through the benefit system to cover their rent is all that stands between them and homelessness. I hope we may hear about this during our deliberations. I trust we agree that the Bill be read a second time, and that it may proceed without amendment

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government and Wales Office (Lord Bourne of Aberystwyth) (Con) [extract]: …Mention has also been made of the role of other groups. Faith groups were mentioned, quite rightly, by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester, who I know has taken a lead on this in the Church and done much in relation to homelessness shelters. On a recent visit to Peterborough, I was pleased to meet some of those providing support as part of the network he referred to. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark also spoke, for example, of his experience of what is happening in Wandsworth and Croydon. I thank them because, whatever happens today, there is always a role for faith and voluntary organisations to come together. They are trusted, familial and responsive. They are a vital part of the fabric and mosaic in this area.


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