My daughter and I participated recently in a “Sleep Out” event on the grounds of St James’ Church in Piccadilly in London.
The event was a fundraiser for my organization, West London Mission, a Methodist nonprofit working to address homelessness in London.
It was an uplifting evening – 82 supporters gave up their beds for the night to sleep out; we raised significant funding for our work to bring rough sleepers in from the cold.
Michael was one of our formerly homeless clients who spoke to everyone at the start of the evening. He talked about how West London Mission gave homeless people “a platform to help people like him come off the streets.”
A platform to help. It’s a good phrase to describe our work.
Charities like West London Mission provide support, stability, consistency and resources for people in need. And these are vital ingredients that help homeless people take the steps they need to make.
But it’s wrong to think that any person or agency can sort someone else out. No one can take the steps of change on behalf of someone else – there is always a journey that needs to be taken by the individual concerned.
However much social injustice has led to someone’s homelessness, his or her steps of transformation will always be irreducibly personal.
As I left the church the morning after the sleep out, I chatted with a homeless man who asked me for change as I walked to the public transit.
As we spoke, I thought I recognized him; we worked out that he had lived in the emergency shelter I managed back in 1999 to 2000 when I worked for the youth homeless charity, Centrepoint. Eighteen years later, he was still on the street.
We shared the names of many other residents we both remembered from that hostel. It was sad and sobering to realize how many had since died, almost all due to addictions. As I traveled home, it was a sad reminder of the stark reality of street life.
The following week at West London Mission’s center for rough sleepers on Seymour Place, my friend, Chris Ward, came to speak to the spirituality group, which meets every Tuesday at lunch.
Chris was on the streets for more than three years and almost died due to his addictions to drugs and alcohol. He spoke powerfully about the hard road of recovery he has gone on since his days on the street.
Over the last year, Chris has been in intensive therapy after finally getting a proper diagnosis for his mental health issues.
Through having good quality support, he has found the resources and courage to face up to the reality of what he has been through and the trauma he suffered when young.
Importantly, it has also helped him be honest about the pain he has caused to others too. I am so proud of the progress he has made.
Belief in God and direct spiritual experiences have been at the core of Chris’ recovery journey. Instead of being an escape from reality, faith has helped him engage with reality and to be truly honest with himself. Grace has enabled him to accept truth.
Chris spoke with a power and directness that only addicts can. He challenged everyone to be honest and take the steps only they could take. And he inspired us with stories and pictures from his recent pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Portugal and Spain.
His talk was a great example of how pilgrimage is both an outward, physical journey and an inward, spiritual one.
Chris’ and Michael’s stories are ones of hope. They have both been able to use the platforms available to walk the hard road of recovery.
But we need to be real about the damage that homelessness, addictions and trauma have on people and lose any romantic notions we may have about homelessness.
It’s never too late for someone to change and to turn his or her life around.
And, while we cannot change anyone else, we can be resolute to be there for those in need, offering the platform and the opportunity for change.
Jon Kuhrt is chief executive of West London Mission and a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.
Jon Kuhrt is chief executive of West London Mission and a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London.