A nightshelter to a housing campaign: I had no power but you showed me how to take it back

By John Clifton

A week on Thursday, Ilford Salvation Army will open its night shelter for the 5th consecutive winter.  During this time, hundreds of people have stayed in the shelter, which accommodates 28 people per night.  For those 93 nights, during the coldest part of the year, the Corps building becomes ‘home’.  However, we’re very aware that sleeping on a camp-bed in our upstairs hall doesn’t constitute fullness of life.  Let’s take a look at Matthew 25 again:

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 

A key aspect of verses 34-36 is the change (or transformation, if you will..) of the situation.  The one who is hungry is fed – not hungry anymore.  The one who is thirsty is given drink – not thirsty anymore.  The one who is a stranger is welcomed in – not a stranger anymore.  The one who is naked is clothed – not naked anymore.  The one who is sick is cared for – not suffering anymore.  The one who is in prison is visited – not isolated anymore.

In other words, the homeless person is meant to get a home – not homeless anymore!

But how about we go a step further and recognise that one of the roots of homelessness is a lack of agency?  An incapacity to act?

Over the last five years, we’ve spent a lot of time learning about the housing situation in Redbridge.  We’ve listened to people (lots and lots of visitation – spending 30-45 minutes with someone, where they are to be found in order to develop a public relationship, and further your and their spiritual interest. This is on the assumption that “furthering spiritual interests” entails furthering material, social and political interests as well.)  We’ve allied with others in our community, through our membership of Redbridge Citizens.  With those allies, we’ve learned about the obstacles to ‘moving on’ from the local hostel (research) and learned who has the power to change it.  We’ve learned that community institutions like churches are being ripped apart because of rising rents.  We have had lots of meetings with our council, and made a lot of progress.  However, in every campaign, there comes a time for action – public action.

This nearly two-year campaign took a significant step in recent weeks with the publication of the Redbridge Fairness Commission Final Report.  After receiving presentations from Ilford Salvation Army (on families experiencing homelessness) and Redbridge Citizens (on the Living Wage and the housing crisis), the commission made a recommendation to take decisive action to address the growing local housing crisis by identifying “at least two parcels of land for large scale Community Land Trusts”.  (The commission also recommended “to become a Living Wage Borough by extending the London Living Wage to employees of contractors who provide services for the Council. Within a year, we would expect the Chief Executive and relevant Director to have entered into discussions with the top five contractors to begin negotiations about the implementation of the London Living Wage by 2018/19, with a view to further rollout across all contracts subsequently.”  That will be the topic of another post!)

Given that this document was being tabled at a full council meeting on November 19th, we decided that it would be good for some of us to take the opportunity to ask a question of Councillor Jas Athwal, the Leader of the Council.  We submitted the following question:

“Would the Leader of the Council join Redbridge Citizens in congratulating the Fairness Commission on including the excellent recommendation to develop two Community Land Trusts in the borough and will he commit to working with Redbridge Citizens, to develop the Local Plan and identify two parcels of land in order to make this recommendation for genuinely affordable housing for local people a reality?”

We took 83 people to ask it, which filled the public gallery as well as some in an overflow committee room who were not visible.  We all stood together as the question was asked, holding signs on A3 paper saying [#2CLTs].  The aim of the action was to seek an endorsement for a Redbridge CLT and to invite the Leader to an assembly that we will hold on January 28th to celebrate .  In our evaluation, we concluded that we received as much of an endorsement as would be possible in such a meeting (“I give you my commitment that we will do everything possible to make sure this happens”).  In response to a supplementary question (“Will you also accept the invitation of Redbridge Citizens to attend a celebration at St Margaret of Antioch…to mark 300 new Redbridge members of the East London CLT and will he and his fellow councillors here this evening become members themselves, we have the forms, and it costs you just one pound each to own something with this community that is stood here?”) the Leader confirmed that he would be putting the January Assembly in his diary.  We felt that this action achieved the aims.  We also received a spontaneous round of applause from the Council Members and got the help from a council official who placed a CLT membership form on each desk during the intermission.

We are now planning for the January Assembly and signing up our target of 300 Redbridge members of the CLT.  Indeed, this element of the action is perhaps the most exciting as it is those who are sleeping rough who are the most active in recruiting CLT members.  For example, Kersten, who is on the left in the picture below, is currently homeless but has signed up 12 new members since Thursday.  This is not something that is being done for or to those facing homelessness – people are doing for themselves what they are able to do!

So – our dream, coming up to the fifth winter of the night shelter, is that it will not just be a place where lives are saved (though it is), where a community comes together to meet a common need (though it is) and where those sleeping rough come to realise that they are valued and loved by our community (though, again, it is) – but that it will be a place where people who are homeless find the capacity to act again – that power might be built.  Bold, public action is a key part of this.

“I had no power, but you showed me how to take it back.”