Tackling homelessness, the Common Good way

Here we reflect on the potential of churches to act as a force for good in the community, to offer a sense of purpose and meaning in response to the widespread perception of hopelessness in the context of growing social division and fragmentation. We focus here on the experience of Ian Terry, Team Rector of Bournemouth Town Centre who was inspired by T4CG to run a process of bringing local partners together into new collaborations and action to tackle street homelessness in their town.

Walk around almost any town or city in Britain and you will encounter a rough sleeper. In Bournemouth the situation is no different, and arguably things are worse there than the national trends would suggest. City centre churches are often at the front line and always looking for more effective ways to help people who find themselves without a home.

The statistics are bleak. Poverty is often the leading factor, but personal issues can also play a part. Many rough sleepers struggle with dependency on alcohol or drugs or report a mental health difficulty. They may have fled violence at home. Once on the streets, it’s almost impossible to return to a stable life. People who experience homelessness are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population.

But the visibility of rough sleepers often masks a far wider challenge when the ‘hidden homeless’ are included – people who are sofa surfing or living in over-crowded or temporary accommodation. Contributing to the problem is a prevailing public attitude that homeless people can sort themselves out if they really wanted to.

Homelessness is a hugely complex issue, not least because it involves human beings, and every person’s life story is unique. This poses an impossible challenge for local government. The issue cannot be solved by the Council alone, nor indeed in Whitehall: a one-size-fits-all is never going to be enough.

In Bournemouth, like everywhere else, local NGOs, healthcare workers and charities have specialist local knowledge and each plays a vital role. Churches contribute by running night shelters, soup kitchens, befriending, or in some places through initiatives that provide genuinely affordable housing.

But there is frustration that the problem is so multi-faceted that individual efforts seem inadequate in the face of such complexity. Organisations are often unaware of what each other are doing; it is unrealistic and arguably undesirable to have a single coordinating body.

However, many working across the churches are asking what more we can do to bring more humanity to civic life. Ian Terry, city centre Team Rector in Bournemouth town centre, has been asking questions like this, and has followed the work of Together for the Common Good for some time.

So Ian was interested to hear we were exploring ways to bring civic partners together to tackle intractable local problems using our framework of principles. Ian approached us and we agreed to collaborate with him in his initiative to tackle street homelessness in Bournemouth.

Ian was pleased with the early results which included planning for two hubs for homeless people, led by local Catholic and Anglican churches, with health workers closely involved and strong participation from police, council, and local homeless charities.

The process helped to generate a different kind of conversation that not only led to action and collaboration, but which is infused with the values of human dignity and the common good. In a city like Bournemouth, there are always going to be a variety of competing interests, where lots of people and organisations have something valuable to contribute, but where no one person or group is solely responsible for meeting the challenge, nor could be.

As a church leader with ten years of forging partnerships in Bournemouth, Ian realised he was well-placed to attempt to broker a process like this. The T4CG approach provided a framework for a church leader to bring together different civic players involved with homelessness and generate collaboration.

Ian integrated this within his research for his doctorate in theology, which asks How can a parish church work with local partners for the Common Good? An exploration about homeless people and rough-sleepers in Bournemouth.

T4CG’s principles of Common Good Thinking are rooted in the gospel, communicated in non religious language to make them accessible to all. As part of his DTh research, Ian decided to weave in a long listening exercise, centering on a series of ‘focus group’ conversations. This proved to be a very effective means of strengthening existing relationships and included people with current experience of homelessness as well as many civic players and local businesses in Bournemouth.

Ian’s process involves a series of stages, including a ‘facilitated conference’ in which all the stakeholders were assembled. Ian was pleased with the level of participation:

“With over 50 people taking part, it was a lively day of discussions. Homeless people, including ex-rough sleepers, took part in a series of sessions as we looked for actions we could take together that would make a difference.

The day included representatives from Bournemouth Reform Synagogue, the Roman Catholic Church, community churches, the URC, Baptist Church as well as Anglicans, and the School of Mission in Winchester, CEOs from local charitable organisations including Shelter, YMCA, Bournemouth Churches Housing Association, St Mungos, Street Support, Faithworks Wessex, Hope into Action all took part, as did the local police – both a town centre PC and the Chief Constable of Dorset, who spent the whole afternoon on board and drew the event together at the end. Local Councillors and landlords also contributed, as did mental health and addiction workers. Business people contributed to focus groups preparing for the day.”

This kind of process can kick start community connections and to foster relationships between different groups who may not know what each other are doing. It can potentially transform a siloed and fractured community into a connected, relational community focused on tackling a common concern in which all participate, contribute, support and value each other. Over 95% of the participants said they would recommend the experience to others. 

One of several developments from the day was a proposal for local hubs. As Ian explains:

“Participants are building on the insights gained from the day we spent together, which included significant rough-sleeper input. We agreed in principle that two ‘hubs’ are desirable, one for those rough-sleepers who arrive in Bournemouth needing help at short notice, the second, a different kind of hub, focused on facilitating lasting change, for those wanting to turn their lives around. This emerged very strongly from the conference, along with enthusiasm for developing a ‘digital passport’ to facilitate joined-up workings.”

The process in Bournemouth has already led to the participants generating a pathway forward – practical steps which are set to impact the multiple symptoms and causes of homelessness in the town. As Ian continues,

“We have drawn representation from businesses into a small ‘Task and Finish’ group to establish two distinct hubs for homeless people. Catholics and Anglicans are leading, with medics close behind and strong participation from police, council, and homeless charities (including YMCA and Bournemouth Churches Housing Association).”

Ian believes that with some confidence building, churches have the potential to act as a force for good in the community and can help to create a sense of mutual belonging, especially now in the context of growing social division and fragmentation.

Ian’s view is that churches can offer “wholistic purpose and meaning in response to the widespread perception of hopelessness” and that in Bournemouth, a ‘common good builder’ process has mobilised a new energy:

“Our Common Good Builder process has already borne encouraging fruit. All the folk involved represent stakeholders in the Common Good of Bournemouth – but it is particularly hopeful that homeless people themselves have set aside the time to make their contribution to resolve this situation that they are most impacted by.”

Jenny Sinclair

Jenny Sinclair is Founder Director of Together for the Common Good.

Photos: Nick Fewings on Unsplash, Bournemouth Echo, Vincent Neate, Ian Terry