If we are to celebrate the birth of the Homeless God, we must surely seek to understand the true face of what life without a home means in 2013, and sleeping rough is only part of it.
Is it time one of our most beloved and iconic Advent/Christmas traditions – the Nativity Scene – had a makeover? But beyond the schmaltz and faux crib, stable and animals, can we really face the fact that God’s was born into a homeless family?
A couple of years ago, an alternative nativity scene which portrayed Mary and Joseph as twenty first century homeless people caused a stir with residents of a North Devon village. The life-size scene, in the window of a derelict shop on Chulmleigh’s Fore Street, showed two faceless adults huddled round a fire in an urban back-alley while the baby Jesus lies sleeping in a shopping basket.
The scene was completed by a cardboard box containing sleeping bags, copies of the Big Issue strewn across the floor and a brick wall with graffiti reading “What if God was one of us?” Alongside was Jesus’ quote from Matthew’s gospel: “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
On the same tack, but in somewhat more calculated fashion, the Railway Children charity placed nine Nativity cribs in high profile locations across London, as part of a hard-hitting campaign designed to highlight the plight of thousands of children surviving on Britain’s streets without care. The nine cribs represented the fact that there are just nine beds available nationwide, for the estimated 100,000 children who end up living rough each year, 30,000 of which are aged 12 or younger.
More incongruously, a 53-year-old man with nowhere to sleep on Saturday night was reported to have decided to warm himself up by stealing the three wise men’s garments from a full-size nativity scene standing in the centre of Essen in western Germany.
How do you respond to that? What if it happened to a Nativity Scene near you? How dare an actual homeless man desecrated or steal clothes from the Holy Homeless Family!
But what indeed, if Christ was born into a squalid squat, abandoned house, or empty caravan on the outskirts of your village, town or city?
Alastair Sloan recently took to task the sponsored sleep-out – a favourite fundraising strategy of many homelessness charities (and churches) up and down the country – in excoriorating terms: “Jollies under the stars, making a mattress from cardboard and bedding down – these Bear Grylls excursions just perpetuate the myth that homelessness is about rough sleeping, and is therefore a much smaller problem than it really is.”
His language might have been a bit strong, but his fundamental point holds true: Rough sleeping is the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t begin to cover the extraordinary scope of homelessness. Each year homelessness affects around 400,000 people.
Imagine if “experiencing homelessness” was sold to you as it really is. Most homeless people do not sleep in the street. You would most likely be sofa surfing, squatting, staying in hostels or being passed around B&Bs by the local council.
Tens of thousands more homeless live in filthy squats, far out of reach of help. Hundreds of thousands more float from sofa to sofa, the legion of “hidden homeless.”
And countless thousands more may have a roof over their head, but hardly a place they can call home. With house prices now soaring above where they were before the economic crash, home ownership is moving ever further out of the reach of many families. In London and other parts of the country, over-crowding is now rife, with one in nine of the capital’s dwellings having too few bedrooms for their occupants – and in Newham, the figure is a shocking one in four.
Ceecee’s experience is far from uncommon: ‘I live in a one bedroom ground floor flat with my two boys who are aged three and eight. When I went to the council to ask how long it could take for me to move, they told me to turn my living room into a bedroom. I don’t know what to do because I’ve been doing everything and three years later I’m still here.’
It was not for nothing that the UN Special Rapporteur, Rachel Rolnik found on her visit to the UK in September that “Increasingly, people [in the UK] appear to be facing difficulties in accessing adequate, affordable, well-located and insecure housing.”
In spite of the brickbats she received for her efforts, her conclusion is worthy of repeating: “The right to housing is not about a roof anywhere, at any cost, without any social ties. It is not about reshuffling people according to a snapshot of the number of bedrooms at a given night. It is about enabling environments for people to maintain their family and community bonds, their local schools, work places and health services allowing them to exercise all other rights, like education, work, food or health.”
I’m sure, if the Holy Family were discovered in a back alley near you this Christmas, their response would be “Amen to that.”
To download resources for Poverty and Homelessness Action Week (25 January – 2 February 2014) visit www.actionweek.org.uk