What is the place of spirituality in Homelessness Service Provision? In this blog series, I’ll be looking at spirituality and faith. Is it something that homelessness services address, and should it?
New Hope is a Christian charity, and as such is motivated by Christian values and beliefs. We are open to everyone, regardless of their religious orientation, but that doesn’t mean that our organisation needs to hide its Christianity under a bushel. This is because it’s possible to respect the opinions of others while sharing and acting on your own opinion.
However, some people believe that faith is a private matter, and not something that a charity or public service provider should explore. Is spirituality a “no-go area”, or would people who are homeless welcome services that acknowledge spiritual needs?
“Lost and Found: Faith and Spirituality in the Lives of Homeless People” is a study by Carwyn Gravell of the impact that services catering to spiritual needs can have on people who are homeless. The study, published by Lemos and Crane, is in two parts. The first part discusses the benefits of spirituality for people facing homelessness, and the secularisation of modern homeless services. The second part presents the findings of 75 in-depth interviews with people who are homeless about their life history and attitude to faith and religion, and suggestions for making spirituality part of homelessness services.
Gravell describes the theoretical benefits of faith from the perspectives and experience of people who are homeless without making an argument for the objective truth of religion. He draws upon many common features of world religions and shows how they can benefit people who are facing or have faced homelessness.
Faith can give you a sense of community and identity, which is beneficial for mental wellbeing. One example of religion providing a sense of community is through group worship. Many religions also stress the equality of all human beings, which will be particularly important to people who feel marginalised or alienated, as people who are homeless often do. Identification with a religious community can provide positive social labels, rather than negative labels such as “homeless person” or “drug addict”. This sense of community also contrasts with contemporary secular values such as individualism and self-sufficiency, which some people may not find helpful or realistic.
Faith can also give one’s life order and purpose. Religion provides people with an ethical code, such as the Christian ten commandments or the Buddhist noble eightfold path. People have an innate desire to understand the world, and religion provides harmonious explanations for life. These can provide support to people whose lives have become chaotic or directionless, as many people who are homeless experience. This support goes hand in hand with consolation for loss and loneliness. Many religions have some conception of an afterlife, a reality that is more permanent than the physical world, which is characterised by decay and impermanence. The loss of material possessions, home, money and status is something that all people facing homelessness have to deal with, but religions stress the importance of an immaterial world and the possibility of having a fulfilling relationship with the divine.
A related benefit is religion’s emphasis on charity. Gravell mentions that people who are or have been homeless frequently volunteer to help within homelessness services. Our charity reflects this fact: several New Hope volunteers have at some point been homeless. Some critics of religion argue that religion provides a selfish motivation for being good: to get into Heaven, or be saved. But that isn’t the only motivation religion provides. Christianity for example stresses that God loves all human beings, and that loving one’s neighbour is an expression of loving God, selfless rather than selfish. People whose faith provides them with motivation to help others will have a sense of self-belief and confidence, which is necessary for people trying to escape homelessness.
Another benefit of faith is peace of mind, or serenity. Contemplative practices such as meditation or prayer have been found to improve mental health. Mindfulness which is a form of meditation is endorsed as improving mental health by the NHS. Many homeless people suffer from mental health problems, but the practice of reflecting on your behaviour, practicing gratitude, and repenting your personal failings can bring relief and calm. Prayer may not be able to replace medical care but it can provide another source of support in addition to healthcare professionals or friends.
Finally, religion gives people a sense of beauty, wonder, and mystery. Belief in something bigger and more important than oneself or society. This is expressed in the beauty of religious art. Religious buildings and temples, which are often large and filled with beautiful iconography, can turn people’s attention away from narrow selfish concerns and towards the transcendent. Religion can give hope to people who feel hopeless and emphasise God’s unconditional love of them regardless of the state of their life.
In the next post, I will address the current state of homelessness service provision which is largely secular. I will look at the reasons why many service providers are reluctant to address spirituality, and whether this leaves an absence that needs to be filled.