A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on January 28, 2024 by Revd Dr Sam Wells

Homelessness Sunday

Readings for address: Revelation 21: 1-4, John 14: 1-3

Most people when they hear the word homelessness think of rough sleeping. It’s a reasonable assumption to make: there’s plenty of people near St Martin’s sleeping in shop or office doorways in makeshift sleeping bags and sometimes rickety tents. But rough sleepers represent only 10% of the homeless population of the UK. A second group of homeless people are those in night shelters, hostels, bed and breakfasts, and refuges: in other words, places you couldn’t possibly call home. Then there’s the so-called hidden homeless: those who keep out of public gaze by sleeping at a friend’s house, bedding down on a sofa, living in a squat, a car or a shed. Finally there’s those at risk of homelessness, for whom fragile finances, strained relationships or the risks within the home make each day one of uncertainty and vulnerability.

Like many political issues, those who address homelessness tend to divide into two kinds. One type focuses on what we might call infrastructure, and calculate the cost of making more housing available, ensuring benefits are paid more equitably, identifying the points of pressure like migration issues or people coming out of hospital or prison, or tackling local government budgets. The other type concentrates on individuals, their deprived childhoods, mental health challenges, addiction struggles, relationship breakdowns, and barriers to getting into accommodation. This is the paradox of homelessness: it’s difficult to motivate people to get involved unless you can tell many upbeat personal stories; but somehow you always fear that if the more abstract structural issues aren’t addressed, then the supply of people in crisis will only grow.

I’d like to tell you about one country that’s chosen a different approach to issues of poverty and isolation. The Kingdom of Bhutan lies tucked in the Himalayas, enclosed by India and China, with Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west, and Bangladesh to the south. Bhutan was more or less closed to the outside world until the 1960s. At that stage it faced a question of what was distinctive about its culture it wanted to keep, and what was ripe for change by the influence of global trade and communications. By 1972 the King decided that, unlike the rest of the world, which evaluated national progress by GDP, Bhutan would adopt a different yardstick to assess its own wellbeing. GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is a measure of production, expenditure and income that came to be used globally after the Second World War to calculate the level of economic activity in a country. It notoriously doesn’t have an international dimension, nor does it pay any attention to inequality. In 1972 Bhutan began to advocate the alternative notion of Gross National Happiness. The Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley said, ‘True abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realising our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.’ He was talking about what we might call being with one another, being with ourselves, and being with creation. Taking a glance at the West, Bhutan’s leaders perceived that while material wealth could offer security and resources that indisputably improved lives, neglecting the less material aspects of life could leave a population unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

Today, those working with the people of Bhutan have developed nine domains of Gross National Happiness: psychological wellbeing, health, education, use of time, cultural diversity, good governance, community vitality, ecological resilience, and living standards. The consensus is that if a person is sufficient in two-thirds of the domains they are understood to have the causes and conditions of well-being. The government’s role is not to make everyone flourish. That’s something people can only do for themselves, and everyone has to find their own path. Making your own journey and using your own initiative and imagination is integral to what flourishing entails. But what the government must do is create an environment where each person can make that journey to wellbeing.

Nobody’s pretending Bhutan’s perfect or that it doesn’t have deep-seated cultural challenges like debt, unemployment and corruption. The point is that the notion of seeking wellbeing is rather different from simply driving up economic growth, or even reducing the number of people experiencing homelessness. Wellbeing is an end, and not just a means. When we transfer that insight into homelessness in the UK, we begin to see two important things, which I believe we need to hold together.

The first is that ending homelessness isn’t just about getting every rough sleeper, sofa-surfer or bed and breakfast dweller into proper housing. The truth is that plenty of people in proper housing don’t have sufficiency in many of the indicators of wellbeing: they struggle to read, or are fear other members of their family, or have unrewarding work. Meanwhile many people who are without secure housing do have sufficiency in some of those indicators, such as spirituality and knowledge. What we might call the GDP approach is all about building houses and assigning resources. The Bhutanese model is about going further into people’s real identities, needs and longings.

But the second thing to say at the same time is that it’s very difficult to gain sufficiency in most of the indicators of wellbeing without having a genuine place to call home. It’s hard to imagine cultivating strong mental health if your body is constantly vulnerable. You’re unlikely to feel safe if you’ve nowhere reliable to store your possessions. How can you think about who to vote for and hold to account if you have little idea where you’ll sleep tonight? Housing isn’t the whole of the answer – but it’s very difficult to reach any kind of sustainable wellbeing without a real home. The clue’s in the name: this is not about houselessness – it’s about homelessness. Home means a host of things that house doesn’t always mean: things like warmth, relationship, comfort, peace, belonging and trust. Those turn out to be just the same things that show up on nine domains of wellbeing and 33 indicators of happiness.

The 1966 TV drama Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach, depicts a young woman Cathy leaving her rural upbringing and hitchhiking to the city, where she meets and marries Reg, a lorry driver. They have to move out of their flat because it doesn’t allow children, and Reg incurs an injury that prevents him working. The film portrays how they move first to Reg’s parents, then to a kind landlady who dies and is succeeded by a less tolerant nephew. They’re evicted and move to a caravan park, but the neighbours turn nasty. So they squat in an abandoned building. Cathy and her three children then move into a shelter, where Reg can’t join her. But her time there expires. The story finishes on a railway station, where social services come to take Cathy’s children away. The play was watched by a quarter of the nation’s population and was later voted the second greatest TV programme of the twentieth century (after Fawlty Towers). It’s associated with the founding of Shelter and Crisis and a rise in consciousness of homelessness in wider British culture.

The play is a study in meanings of the word home, and the erosion of wellbeing. What we see is that Cathy and Reg can make a flourishing relationship that’s not all about their housing – but when stable and secure housing is removed, it’s almost impossible to reach any kind of wellbeing at all, and life soon disintegrates into conflict, danger and breakdown. We see both the structural issues of flats that won’t allow children, and inadequate support for those prevented by injury from working, in the face of which the kindness of the landlady and the hospitality of Reg’s parents aren’t sufficient.

The Bible has no sentimental solution to homelessness. Abraham was promised a home but always lived in a tent. Moses wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. Israel spent 50 years in exile. The Old Testament is a story of homelessness. And in the New Testament we get the words, ‘Here we have no abiding city.’ Jesus is born homeless, and later says, ‘The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ We learn at the start of John’s gospel, Jesus was in the world, but the world received him not. It’s a commonplace to say Christianity’s about salvation: but it’s often forgotten that salvation means permanent wellbeing. The Bible is one great big global wellbeing index.

Christians base their notion of home on two fundamental promises. The first is about the future: Jesus says in John 14, ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. … If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.’ This is a promise that there is ultimately a home, that it is a domain of flourishing, and that its gross national happiness is bursting beyond 100% on all 33 indicators, and that it’s a place of belonging and relationship and warmth and security and trust. And it’s a promise that Jesus is there. There will be an end to all our displacement and transitoriness and we and Cathy shall finally come home.

The second promise is about the present: in Revelation 21, we’re told, ‘Behold, God’s dwelling is among us, and God dwells with us and we are God’s people and God is with us.’ This isn’t about a final secure place: it’s about the happiness and wellbeing we can find even when we have no secure and stable place. It’s about the kind landlady and the generous strangers and the love of Reg Cathy finds while she’s not yet come home, before she finds her abiding city.

Because the true wonder of the Christian gospel is not just that we shall one day come home, that all our strivings shall cease, that taken from our souls will be all the strain and stress and that finally our ordered lives shall confess the beauty of God’s peace. That is marvellous and true, and our ultimate hope. But the Christian gospel is more tangible and surprising and wondrous than that. It is that God too knows what it means to be homeless, and that God chooses from before the foundation of the world to be at home with us. Wherever we are, in a shop doorway or a cosy manor house, sleeping on a London bus or crossing the Channel in a fragile boat, God’s home is with us. God’s home is made with us that our home may forever be made in God.

So those experiencing homelessness are not a separate underclass to be earmarked as a project and simply fixed by legislation and application of policy. A homeless person is an icon of each one of us, insecure, seeking trust, aching for belonging, and even more than that, a window into God, who is never at home, until making a home with us. So every action we take today, whether agitating for housing or fostering wellbeing, is an anticipation of the final form of salvation, when we and God find our home in one another.