Housing the homeless: Project Sukkot

1st Sunday after Trinity (23.6.19): Housing the Homeless (Project Sukkot)

Isaiah 65:1-9           Galatians 3:23-29              Luke 8: 26-39

Our gospel reading today tugs at the imagination.  It is hard not to wonder about this poor man – interestingly, we know the name of his torment, but not his own name – cast out from society, living alone among the tombs.  Whether we interpret the story in terms of modern psychological medicine – or whether we take the story of demon possession on its own terms – either way, he had not always been that way.  He had once had a family, and friends, and a home.  And then this terrible misfortune had come upon him, so that he became so terrifying, that his own people could do nothing but chain him up and keep him under guard.  That is already tragic.  And that his response to this was to break his bonds and go out into homeless solitude seems quite understandable.

I want to speak to you today about homelessness.  I do not think it is the least fanciful to speak about homelessness as one of the legion of demons that in our own day torment Jesus’ brothers and sisters.  And as Jesus comes into the gospel story as a healer, so we – who are Jesus’ hands and feet and voices in the world – are called to become healers.  To play our part, where we can, in rescuing people from the clutches of the evil one, as represented by homelessness.

I have chosen this theme because Oakham’s churches have set ourselves to buy and run a house so as to help people whose lives have been blighted by homelessness.  We are doing this in partnership with Rutland County Council and a Peterborough charity called Hope into Action.  All Saints PCC has voted that the church should support this effort, along with the others in churches together.  So I want to tell you about this project, and also to ask you to consider whether this is something that you can support.  We are looking for people to give time and love.  And also for people to invest – not give! – money.

But let’s start at the beginning, with the people we want to help.  Our partner charity, Hope into Action, works with 61 partner churches all across the UK who have invested over £10m in 67 homes for the homeless, so that nearly 200 people are receiving the love and support of the local church, each and every day.  I thought I could best illustrate how this works by talking about a few of those individual stories.  They illustrate how homelessness is not only about not having a home.  These people are beset with a legion of problems.  Often they have had the worst possible start in life.  Sometimes, their lives have fallen apart under multiple blows.  But giving them a safe and pleasant place to live – as well, crucially, as loving support – they can find healing and hope.

So, I can tell you about Bev.  (The names have been changed, by the way, but these are real people.)  Bev writes:

I was abused as a child and it’s fair to say that life has been really tough as an adult too. I escaped an abusive relationship, but fell in with the wrong crowd and started taking drugs.  I wound up in prison for stealing – which is when life started to turn around for me. The prison chaplain put me in touch with Hope into Action, and then I met Carol, my mentor from the partner church, St Peter’s.

When I was released, members of St Peter’s met me at the prison gates. Hope into Action gave me a place to call home.

I’ve received help to work out a repayment plan for my debts and for the first time in my life, I have a proper bank account, so I can be more organised with my finances.

I’ve had a lot of support to stay clean of drugs and feel positive about my future. Hope into Action arranged for me to see a counsellor once a week to talk about the abuse and I’m finally getting my health sorted out. I even have a new set of teeth – done by someone in my church.

I have four grown up children, who I talk to on the ‘phone. Earlier this year, I got back in touch with other members of my family who I hadn’t seen for well over a decade. Now I’ve got my mum back and my brother and sister. I’m ‘Auntie Bev’ to my eight nieces and nephews – it’s amazing.

The support I’ve received from Hope Into Action has been a lifesaver.  I honestly don’t know where I would be now without their help. I’d probably be on the streets, or in a filthy drug den. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Or listen to Ron.  Ron was a married family man who never expected that he would become homeless. But his life changed after a chain of events:

“I had a loan issue, marriage break up, lost my job, health issues, over-priced private rental properties which I couldn’t maintain, sofa surfing with friends. The whole thing just imploded really and that made my life more difficult.”

He spent two years living in a garden shed.  When asked what the biggest issues are when you are homeless, Ron has little doubt:

“Lack of access to medical help and other facilities. It’s been a real eye-opener to me to what it means to be homeless and rough sleeping.  I started to feel more and more under-valued as a person.  At one time I was quite cushioned, being married with family you know, but I’m a good example that it could happen to anyone. We’re all just a step away from it in today’s society.

“I think being with Hope into Action, having a secure, safe home and being surrounded by people to support me from the church has given me back my dignity and confidence. I’m still in shock about my experiences – how did I get to that – but I have hope for my future thanks to Hope into Action and church.”

In short: ending up with no home is generally the result of many factors; and it creates for people a whole legion of problems.  Issues with health, broken family relationships.  Losing confidence, losing the habit of paying bills and managing money.  Problems with the law.  Being vulnerable to physical attack, or to substance abuse.  And so, the opposite is true: giving people both a secure home, and lots of loving support, can help people get their lives unstuck and back on track.

So, how can you help?

Well, when we get the house up and running, we will looking for various kinds of practical support.  Help with decorating and furnishings, a bit of DIY no doubt, and then help befriending and supporting the residents.  That, in the future, may be part of the role you can play.

But in order to get to Go, in the first instance we are looking for people who are able to invest money – to join with others in buying the house in the first place.  You may have seen a notice in the pewsheet about this over the last few weeks.

We are looking for Christians who have some money.  Not to give away, but to invest; in truth, many of us have money in the bank, or in ISAs or stocks and shares.  And the invitation is to invest it instead in residential property.  That is not in itself a particularly radical idea.  Many of us own homes already, we know that it is not entirely without risk, but over the long run many of us have found it to be a good financial bet.

So what we are asking is that you take some of the money you have invested in other places, and join with others in buying a house in Oakham.  The house would then be leased (on a normal commercial lease) to Hope into Action.  Who would work with the churches and with Rutland County Council to house in it local homeless people.  We will probably look for a three-bedroom house, but with two tenants – using one of the rooms as a sitting room so both residents have some private space, while sharing kitchen and bathroom.  The residents can then claim housing benefit, and so pay rent, which enables Hope into Action to pay you the investors a financial return.

Meanwhile, the house and its tenants would be professionally managed.  As I said earlier, Hope into Action already manage about 70 such homes.  People whom life has wounded often need some tough love; Hope into Action have got a track record which gives us confidence that they can do this.  And that they can help people grow and develop, so their experience is that people stay in the house for less than two years, moving on into an independent tenancy.

So in a sense, this is an invitation to a straightforward commercial investment, which would pay you a return.  You would own a share in the house as an asset – if you died, it would be part of your estate like any other asset.  The lease on the house would be for 5 years, so that is the normal minimum timescale of the investment – although Hope into Action tell me that in occasional cases when people have needed their money sooner than this, it has always been possible to pay people back.

But in another sense, this is not just about prudent money-management.  It is also an invitation to put your money at the service of your Christian values.  If you keep your money in the bank or the stock market, you are essentially putting at it the service of wealthy and powerful people.  Why not, instead, put it at the service of the poor?  Why not act as Christ’s agent in the world, participating in healing the hurts of homeless people.

So, if you have investments – a few tens of thousands, or even a few thousands – then I implore you to consider joining in.  The kind of house we have in mind, in this town, will probably cost a bit under £200k, and so far we have pledges for around £120k.  It only needs a handful of you to step forward and make a relatively modest investment, and we can move forward and buy the house, so that by next winter we can become part of the solution for some desperately needy people.

I have printed off a one-page summary that shows how the model works.  If you are interested, please sign up on the sign-up sheet, and I will contact you during the week to answer any questions you have and talk you through next steps.

Jesus heals the man possessed by a legions of demons, and he calls us to join Him in His ministry of healing.  Our world is desperately sick, terribly in need of God’s loving touch, and we can feel overwhelmed by the extent of human suffering, the number of demons that need to be cast out.  But here, today, is something concrete that many of you can do – to make a difference, to share with Christ in freeing and healing His children.

In God’s name, I implore you: if you have savings, then please consider putting a share of them to work in the project I have described today.

Thank you.