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reflections on poncho

Published in BT, Jul 08


Bloomsbury Central Baptist church is privileged in a variety of ways.  Being at the heart of the capital, the city’s diversity of class, culture and ethnicity is reflected in the congregation. In recent weeks it has focussed sharply upon friends who choose to sleep rough.  One in particular embodies a deeply prophetic character: living outside the world of convention, highly perceptive and blessed with an articulate and critical pen, Michael Blight.  He brought to the church’s attention the effects that recent, well-meaning attempts by the authorities to ‘engage’ with the homeless people.  


‘Operation Poncho’ is the name of the strategy used to encourage homeless people off the streets, and it has seen tremendous success in recent months.  Whilst much of this success is to be affirmed, there are also a few areas where its success has not been universally celebrated.  In particular, the street-cleaning element, and the inestimable disruption it has inflicted upon many innocent homeless people who are woken in the small hours to have their sleeping spaces hosed down.  This was naturally a cause for concern, which as a church we were invited to express at a meeting with the Corporation of London.  


This meeting was not a confrontational exchange, but simply a shared exploration of how best to administer care.  The Corporation’s response was a common sense, and welcome decision to cease provisionally but immediately the street-cleaning element of Operation Poncho, whilst its effects and possible alternatives are explored more fully.


From a churchly perspective, our struggle with this issue has manifest itself in all sorts of unexpected but glorious experiences: attending a theologically cutting edge bible-study led by a highly articulate and biblically grounded homeless person; working for justice alongside (and being greatly indebted to) a self-avowed capitalist businessman; and hearing a church member articulate her social concerns to the Corporation of London by expounding the biblical concept of justice.


Personally it has seen the most colourful six weeks of ten years in ministry: This whole issue has involved being physically attacked on one occasion, being woken on the street by the police on two, and being accused of tokenism and hypocrisy on at least three.  On the more privileged side it involved coffee and conversation with the city’s senior police officer, chairing a meeting with senior representatives from the corporation of London, and representing a fellowship with strong tradition of Christ-centred social concern.  


Of course, there is more to do.  The task of involvement with policy decisions at present requires ways of relating that still can exclude the voices of many homeless people themselves.  More widely, the prevailing culture of aims and objectives is manifest in unrealistic targets being imposed upon local agencies by central government.  For instance the aim of having zero rough sleepers on our streets by the year 2012 may sound like a harmless and perhaps even worthy intention.  But it takes little thought or reflection to identify how ethically questionable such a goal is, both in the way it conceived and upon the effects that it has when it is applied.  The department for Communities and Local Government must be challenged to re-consider the targets it chooses and imposes, no easy task.


Ultimately, the issue of homelessness for British people is not restricted to London, nor even our major cities.  Homeless people arrive here from all over the country.  The major factors that lead to this are several, including divorce and family breakdown, domestic abuse, debt and substance abuse.  Churches that engage successfully with those suffering these problems are unlikely to see positive results on paper, and perhaps unlikely to be celebrated as politically active.  But it is in such quiet, un-measurable, non-target-driven action that real political, spiritual, gospel-based hope is manifest even if it is not yet celebrated.  The reality is that many of our churches are already engaged in such action, in long-term, unglamorous and even unwitting ways (read Mt 25!).  If these largely hidden ministries were remembered and celebrated more fully, we would probably see of the Kingdom of God more clearly.