Lost and Found - Out of the Silence

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?

In part 3 of Lost and Found, Gravell presents the findings from in-depth interviews of 75 people who are homeless. They were asked questions about their lives, and about spirituality. Issues raised include the past, present and future, relationship between self and others, creativity and personal development, religious identity and spiritual practices. Some of the interviewees were still sleeping rough, while others had some form of temporary accommodation.

While some interviewers thought that the questions would be too personal or intrusive, the responses from interviewees were overwhelmingly positive. The interviews were found to be personally enriching, and also elicited ideas for engaging with the faith and spirituality of service users.

The interviews lasted between 30 and 90 minutes, and service users from several charitable organisations were asked to participate. Some were given the questions in advance, while others were randomly selected for the interviews without prior knowledge of the questions. The interview structure was designed in collaboration with Lemos and Crane, and piloted with service users. The final structure began with general questions about their personality and ‘life narrative’, to provide a warm up for the interviewer and interviewee. Then more personal questions about good and bad events in the person’s life and their present situation were asked. Finally, questions directly about their faith and spirituality, and how these could be addressed, were asked.

The impressions that people interviewed had of the interview were edifying. The feedback they gave showed that they felt that talking about themselves and their attitude to faith made them think about the subject more deeply, and that talking felt good and uplifting. However, a few people thought the questions were too personal and off-putting, or that faith wasn’t of interest to them.

The people were asked at the beginning to describe themselves, and how other people viewed them. Most regarded themselves as outgoing and resilient to hardship. Others saw themselves as reserved and introverted. Furthermore, some people had never considered how others saw them, considering themselves to be excluded from society. Some reflected on past or ongoing challenges, such as drug use. Several expressed themselves as spiritual or religious, without prompting.

When asked about their past and present situations, many of those interviewed talked about the various losses they had experienced, such as loss of a home, breakdown of relationship, and diminishing health. Interestingly, some people found their situation to be positive, stating that when they had material wealth they felt isolated and alone, and that they have learnt about what they truly value from having experienced loss. This is reminiscent of the emphasis religions put on the virtues of living simply and appreciating wholesome pleasures. For other people, however, homelessness brought with it a loss of meaning, and feelings of hopelessness and pain.

Many admitted to drug abuse, describing it as a quick way to feel better. Many people who are homeless have time on their hands, and spending that time wisely can be a challenge. Substance abuse is a way to both kill time and numb yourself to the pain of rough sleeping, among other challenges faced.

The people interviewed described various ways they had of holding on to a sense of meaning in their lives. Many reminisced back to happier times. Others read classic literature and religious texts. Another source of consolation was the making and appreciating art, which can help to produce a measure of concentration and serenity, as well as open up a conversation with others. Music in particular was a source of comfort to many. Another was walking, which many did out of necessity but also for pleasure, and as a kind of meditative practice. Spending time in conversation with others was also mentioned frequently. People enjoyed spending time with pets, animals and nature, and it is recognised that the spiritual feeling of being grounded in nature can be therapeutic. Others found consolation in more conventionally spiritual activities, such as prayer or meditation. They also found strength through positive thinking, and focussing on helping others.

When asked about their religious affiliation and background, over seventy percent said that they were or had been religious. Fifty two said they were currently a member of an organised religion. Religious beliefs ranged from Christian or another world religion, to pagan, to spiritual but not religious, to atheistic. When asked about the source of their faith, people appealed to their religious upbringing, but also to a moment of discovery, or epiphany, stemming from the hardships they had experienced while homeless. Their faith gave them hope and strength to live through horrific experiences, including substance abuse and sexual abuse. Some also described how the faith of their upbringing was called into question when they went to university, a common phenomenon. When asked what their faith meant to them, many found it a significant source of happiness and fulfillment. Others who didn’t necessarily have faith acknowledged that those around them with faith seemed happy and fulfilled.

Only a third of people who described themselves as religious had recently attended a place of worship. Reasons for not attending included a lack of opportunity and accessibility, and social embarrassment. Some confided that while in prison they attended worship regularly. For those who had recently attended a place of worship, the experience was overwhelmingly positive, and they described feeling peaceful, welcomed and part of a community. Only one person described the experience negatively, and said it was like being brainwashed.

Only five people said that they had spoken with support workers about faith, and on each occasion they had initiated the conversation. Several encountered hostility from their support worker, who either refused to talk about matters of faith, or tried to avoid it. People born in other countries felt that in Britain there was a ‘curious reticence’ to talking about faith. This may be due to multiculturalism, and the feeling that talking about one particular faith will upset people of other faiths, leading to nobody talking about any faith. Many saw value in talking about faith and spirituality with support workers, for themselves or others. Some advocated caution, but caution about how to have such conversations, rather than whether to have them.

In summary, most of the people interviewed found the interview to be positive, talked about many religious and spiritual issues, and made positive suggestions as to how to engage with faith. The results bear out the fact that spiritual services are wanted by many users of homelessness services.

Many ideas about how to provide spiritual services were voiced. In the next part of this series, I will look at the suggestions for how homelessness services can engage with faith, and consider whether they are practical.

Alex Charlton