Eighteen years ago my first marriage ended. My three daughters and I had to leave our family home and register as homeless. It was an incredibly humiliating and painful experience. Five times in the first year of single parenthood we were forced to move accommodation. I became emotionally and physically drained.
My daughters and I were the fortunate ones. We had family, friends and a church community who would never see us living on the streets. Sadly, there are many people who don't have those support networks, often through no fault of their own.
We are now entering the time of year when churches across the UK will consider opening up their buildings to people who are homeless through church-led night shelters. A few years ago, the local authority in my city approached me and asked if the local churches would consider opening up their buildings. The idea was to open up during the coldest winter months and provide a hot meal, bed and breakfast to those who were street homeless. My response was, 'I really hope so', not only because of the experience my daughters and I had had, but because to me it made perfect sense.
Hundreds of empty buildings being put to very good use and maybe even changing lives in the process: it felt to me like something Jesus envisioned for his church. His body of people would be reaching out to those experiencing extreme poverty, using his resources to repair the damage life had caused them, restoring their dignity and helping them feel loved, accepted and connected.
Many of the night shelter guests – because that's what we know they are, guests in our home – had substance and alcohol addictions. But it is often the homelessness that precedes the addiction rather than the other way round. You feel you need drugs to get through a night on the streets, when not only have do you have to deal with the cold, rain, loneliness and darkness but you also have to cope with other humans treating you disgracefully, peeing on you, spitting on you, beating you up and worse. If you or I had to cope in these situations, could we, hand on hearts, say that we wouldn't resort to alcohol or drugs to get us through? I can't.
So one of my pleas to people when speaking about homelessness is, please don't judge or make assumptions. There are countless reasons why people live on the streets, most of them quite dreadful. These people are trying to survive in a world from which they feel totally disconnected and they are literally just wanting to get through the night.
Disconnection, I believe, is often the root of many of society's ills and can be one of the main causes of addiction and homelessness. I sit on the board of a charity called Housing Justice. It's is the UK's national voice of Christian action to prevent homelessness and bad housing. The charity believes that human dignity is challenged by the lack of a decent home and works tirelessly towards its vision to ensure that everyone has a home that truly meets their needs. Housing Justice also offers support to churches and community groups wanting to set up, sustain and develop a winter night shelter.
Housing Justice produced a video that highlights the disconnection those experiencing homelessness feel. The people interviewed on the video tell of how disconnection contributes significantly to their poor physical and mental health, how disconnection damages their relationships, prevents them holding down jobs and impacts how they live day to day.
As a follower of Jesus I believe connection is intrinsic to every human being. My relationship with him is based on the deep connection I have with him. The Triune God exists in a connected state, Father-Son-Holy Spirit. God himself recognises we need each other; we need relationship, we need to belong to one another, we need connection. We were created for relationship with him and each other. His church is in a privileged position to help connect a broken, disconnected world.
When I was managing the night shelter one of the most beautiful experiences was seeing our guests thrive. The reason for that flourishing was one of the basic of all human experiences: they felt known. The volunteers remembered their names and were interested in them. Guests were treated as guests not as people to be feared or looked down upon. Their stories were listened to, food was shared, they chatted, they laughed with each other and some of their worth and dignity was restored. It used to fascinate me to watch them physically and emotionally change. They would arrive on the first night of their stay, wary, suspicious, dirty and unhealthy and they became open and friendly, clean and healthier because they began to feel connected.
I guess my question is, why aren't more churches across the country eagerly opening up their doors to the homeless? There must be one night of the week for most church buildings when they aren't being used. I appreciate that sometimes what we don't understand can be scary, but often once we do understand, the fear is gone. I get it, that for many people volunteering in a night shelter is way outside their comfort zones, but in all my years of managing the night shelter not one of our volunteers told me that they hadn't benefitted from the experience. In fact, hundreds of them are still volunteering eight years later.
Another of the positives of the night shelter was how their perception of homelessness changed. I have lost count of how many volunteers said to me, 'I was terrified of the street homeless and used to cross the road to avoid them, but they're not scary at all, they're just like you and me!' I had to bite my tongue from responding facetiously because I knew there were kind hearts behind the statement. Other volunteers were grateful because they had always wanted to help men and women on the streets but didn't know how; volunteering in the night shelter was a way of them making a difference.
Henri Nouwen said, 'Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.'
I follow someone who offers the ultimate freedom, who gives us the safe space where change can take place. As winter draws nearer, I ask what he would be doing during these cold, dark months? I have a feeling he would be sitting in one of his church's buildings, playing cards with the guests and calling them by name.
Mandy Bayton is The Cinnamon Network Advisor for Wales, speaker and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @mandyebayton