The Christian faith has a long tradition of caring for the least, the last and the lost. So it was a joyous surprise to hear the heir to the throne – and future Defender of the Faith – champion such Christian values through his new scheme to end homelessness, says George Pitcher
When I first arrived in London in the 70s, I was “of no fixed address”, as the police would describe the circumstance of homelessness. I dossed, sofa surfed and, when I was broke, paid “rent” unconventionally, in kind.
I’ve slept rough in the UK and across Europe, although I don’t recall ever sleeping rough in London, other than part of a night spent at King’s Cross station, before I was turfed out and found a seedy local boarding house.
Despite my experiences, I never felt homeless, significantly because I had an elder sister whom I knew would take me in - and often did. But, strictly speaking, I didn’t have a home to call my own; somewhere to hang my hat. I mean that literally – I learned that a hat is very important on the streets in January.
Through Jesus, our faith identifies intrinsically with the homeless, stateless and hopeless
I was also fit, educated and spoke the language, so I had prospects. But take those away – imagine having no friends or family here, suffering mental ill health, struggling to communicate – and we may begin to understand what the Prince of Wales means by hidden, or invisible, homelessness. Those, particularly the young, who are not yet on the streets, but are dossing with mates, sleeping in cars, finding a hostel or a refuge.
A bold ambition
This, for me, was the most telling part of his interview with last weekend’s Sunday Times, in which he let it be known that he’s launching his own homelessness initiative through his Royal Foundation, with a bold, lifelong ambition of “ending homelessness.”
Yes, it is bold but, actually, it’s all too shamefully possible to end homelessness. Our government did so, temporarily, during the Covid-19 pandemic. To prevent street infections in 2020, it threw just a few million quid (£3.2m in extra funding is the claim, although it’s disputed) at the problem in a scheme with a delightfully unintentional Christological name, Everyone In. It proudly claimed to have got some 90 per cent of homeless people off the streets. In some cities, those sleeping rough fell to zero.
When the lockdowns were over, the government threw them out on the streets again. There’s a strange strain in neo-liberal thinking that citizens should be free to impoverish themselves, without any duty of care for inquiring why they should be doing so, but that’s a matter for another time.
For now, I want to applaud someone at the far other end of the economic scale, Prince William, for making precisely that inquiry - and resolving to do something about it. It seems to me that his ambition is not only achievable (£3.2m index-linked per year anyone?) but absolutely appropriate for the heir to the throne and, as such, a future head of state.
One could dwell on the contrast with his father, King Charles, whose extraordinary experimental new town in Dorset, Poundbury, may have more to do with social engineering and nostalgic architecture than solving homelessness. Poundbury does have some social housing, but the comparison is unkind for another reason – the Prince’s Trust, which Charles founded, has an impressive record of training young people for work, many of whom otherwise might have been on the streets.
William’s campaign nevertheless takes direct aim at the charge that those who live in palaces know nothing of homelessness. After vitsiting a homeless shelter as a child with his mother, he, too, plans to take his own children to meet those with no fixed abode. He’s starting small, but he also used the interview to announce plans to build social housing on his own estates. This might, in socio-economic terms, be termed self-redistributive.
And it’s in keeping with what is (still) called a Christian country, whose monarch remains Defender of the Faith, as the King’s recent coronation affirmed, whatever its nods to post-modern multiculturalism.
If William recognises that, it’s to be celebrated. Not just because it is Christian tradition to shelter the homeless, but because that tradition comes from the heart of the Christian narrative. The holy family are homeless at the start of the Gospel, so the Christ child is born in accommodation for animals. They have a home, in Nazareth, which is why we call that child the Nazarene, but they’re displaced by the cruel economy of the prevailing regime (which precisely qualifies them as William’s invisible homeless).
Yes, it is bold, but it’s all too shamefully possible to end homelessness
Similarly, in the account of Matthew, that family has to flee from murderous oppression into neighbouring Egypt. Here, again, is displacement homelessness in action, but let’s note in passing that they are refugees, who need help, not “migrants” to be despised.
Jesus later told those who chose to pay attention that “foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19-20). There is more to unpack in that statement than space allows, but it’s sufficient to say that our faith identifies intrinsically with the homeless, stateless and hopeless.
One might expect that from the Nazarene. But to hear it from Prince William is an unexpected and joyous surprise.