The other day I was sitting on the third floor of a coffee shop doing some work and minding my own business when a man came in. He went over to the milk container and filled a travel mug with some milk, then came over to me and asked if I had any spare change. I shook my head as I usually only carry a card on me and he moved on to the next person.
This man clearly didn’t have a lot of money and was just one of many people of all ages that I see in central London every day. But there was something about him that touched me - he seemed so down about his situation and I watched him walk away with a real sense of sadness and regret.
Since moving to London, it seems to me that the amount of people I see on the streets has increased. Walking along Oxford Street, there are many sleeping bags, sometimes with people sleeping in them, sometimes deserted. Then there’s the friendly Big Issue seller, who used to cover the area outside my workplace and now pops up everywhere I seem to go in London - he’s there on a Saturday evening in Covent Garden and in Holborn on a Sunday afternoon. And there’s even a homeless couple who’ve camped out at my local tube station.
The people we see on the streets aren’t the only ones suffering
As a Christian I want to help each and every person I see, but as someone who doesn’t earn a huge amount I can’t, at least not financially. Of course homelessness isn’t the only sign of poverty in the city, just one we recognise easily when we see it.
There are different kinds of poverty, heightened by London’s absurd renting and living costs, and the people we see on the streets aren’t the only ones suffering. It can also be the mum struggling to buy her children school shoes, or the many families who are living hand to mouth and living in cold houses as heating simply costs too much.
According to The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there are 2.6 million struggling households. Of this number, 600,000 adults are working full time. There are more people now living on low incomes than in 2008.
Having grown up in a family without much money, my 90s childhood (although in rural Wales), wasn’t all that different. My mum recently told me she doubted she could bring me and my two siblings up the same way in today’s economy.
How have things been allowed to get so much worse since the 90s? What should we, as Christians, be doing to help? It is our duty as Christians to not ignore the poor. So what can the Church do to help?
It is important that we don’t see the poor as victims
Reverend Graham Hunter, from St John’s, Hoxton, says that his parish is representative of London as a whole - an affluent area which is still deeply entrenched in poverty. It is the 7th most deprived parish in London and has the highest proportion of lone parent households in the city.
‘There are structural issues that are causing poverty,’ he explains. ‘We try to help churches to speak prophetically about the growing poverty, not just to help.’
Rev Hunter plans to challenge the Church’s stance on poverty with 'The Gathering' - an event, held with Christians on the Left and Capital Mass, later this month. It promises to raise awareness of the issues that those in poverty face, and to challenge our ideas surrounding the victimisation of those in poverty. The reverend says it is important that we don’t see the poor as victims or deficient in any way, but part of a wider economic problem.
With the rise of foodbanks and the Church’s increased involvement in this area, it would be tempting to believe that as Christians we’re already doing our bit. But there is always more to be done. And it’s the people who fall through the cracks, those who aren’t immediately in need of help that we particularly need to watch out for. It’s for that reason, along with many others that I’ll be at The Gathering next week. The event will examine different approaches to tackling poverty and seek to transform our understandings of poverty and the poor. Why not join us?
Aneira Davies is a freelance journalist and blogger at www.andshemade.co.uk