Church justified in closing doors to the homeless
by Peter Stanford
CHURCH bodies have this week reiterated their "very real concern" at the plight of the growing numbers of single homeless in London, but have defended a Westminster diocesan directive advising priests not to open up church halls as temporary night shelters.
The current DHSS regulations, limiting those living in bed and breakfast accommodation to an eight-week stay and a ceiling on costs of £6.90 per night, have exacerbated London's already chronic housing problem, church agencies have reported. Those particularly affected have been the single homeless since the Government has no statutory duties under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act to provide them with accommodation.
Such has been the scale of the problem in one London borough, Camden, that officials appealed to priests to open halls, crypts and other buildings to the homeless. This request prompted the Social and Pastoral Action Office of the Westminster Diocese to send a circular letter to priests urging them not to take this course of action since it would only "prolong an inadequate process" of providing substandard housing.
"We believe that to open up church halls in this present crisis will allow this process to continue and allow politicians and housing authorities to evade their responsibilities for meeting people's housing rights", the SPA letter stated.
It has received widespread support from the parish priests and Catholic housing bodies of London.
Robina Rafferty, the assistant director of the Catholic Housing Aid Society, told the Catholic Herald that to open up crypts in times of temporary emergencies such as floods or earthquakes was one thing, but that the situation in London now with regard to homelessness should be seen as a "permanent emergency". The Church's view was that all people had the right to a "decent standard" of housing she said, and to allow permanent shelters to be set up in church halls would not accelerate the process towards that goal.
She did not deny that the Church as well as the authorities has a responsibility to help the homeless and pointed to the work of night shelters like' Providence Row and day centres at the Passage in London, but felt that in the long-term the authorities had to direct more attention and more finance into the question of homelessness.
Last year 139,000 single homeless were placed in bed and breakfast accommodation at the Government's expense. There are now an estimated 10,000 single homeless living rough in London, she went on, and housing advice centres are finding it increasingly difficult to find even temporary
accommodation of the homeless with cash limits imposed. The eight-week rule is presently temporarily suspended following a high court ruling that it was illegal, but the Government is thought to be planning fresh legislation to reinstate the guidelines.
Another factor making it difficult for churches to provide a refuge for the homeless is the labyrinth of fire, safety and health regulations, one East London priest pointed out. Pax Christi, the international peace organisation, which for the past 12 years has run a temporary summer hostel in school buildings for travellers in London, has testified to the Catholic Herald to the difficulty of getting the fire authorities to grant permission for shelters.
The Church is working for the homeless in other areas, for instance through the London Churches Resettlement Agency which advises and helps parishes and church groups who wish to set up some provision to help the homeless.
Robina Rafferty this week warned that the current dire situation may get worse when the GLC is abolished in April. In its submission to the inquiry on the abolition of the GLC various church groups voiced fears that the outer London boroughs' would not be willing to shoulder the burden of responsibility for the homeless in the inner city. CHAS remains "very, very concerned at the lack of overall provision" for the homeless. Miss Rafferty said.