Poverty has three faces: material, relational and personal (self-identity).
Each aspect contributes to poverty and homelessness, as I discussed previously, requiring a holistic response to address the underlying causes.
These range of issues display why homelessness brings together a whole range of social issues – the political issues of material poverty, the moral issues of families and relationships and the personal issues relating to a person’s inner identity.
Our response to the issue needs to take into account these faces because the nature of poverty is not static; it manifests itself differently in different times.
I was particularly struck by reading British football (soccer) player Bobby Charlton’s autobiography, which noted how he grew up in poverty in northeast England in a mining community in the 1930s and 1940s.
Everyone in his community was hungry for the two days before payday because the money had run out; everyone just ate bread and margarine. Material poverty was part of life.
Yet there was very little poverty of relationships because of the tight bonds within families and the wider community.
Furthermore, in the dignity of the working community, people knew who they were, and there was a pride and strength of identity.
This is not to paint a rosy picture of the past, but it does illustrate the difference between then and now. Today, material poverty is undoubtedly less dramatic, but relationships and identity are arguably weaker than ever.
Therefore, it is important to keep four points in mind:
1. Homelessness is not the same as “houselessness.”
Houses are material things, while homes are places of relationship and identity. They contain people who love us and are places where we belong.
2. We need to be brave to talk honestly about all these forms of poverty.
Those on the left who are more comfortable talking about structural and material change need to accept the central importance of families and strong relationships.
3. Understanding these wider forms of poverty means acknowledging the importance of empowering homeless people.
Too often a focus purely on the material often simply means blaming the government. There is plenty the government should do, like build more houses and create a fairer society.
But as well as building houses, our work must be about helping people rebuild stronger relationships and a more healthy identity.
This means empowering people to take personal responsibility and ensuring that our activities and methods of care enable recovery rather than continued dependency.
4. Churches should be confident about the important role they have to play because we have unique resources to address all three of these forms of poverty.
Some people have suggested to me that there should be another circle called “spiritual poverty.”
I don’t agree because I think all three of these areas have spiritual implications.
The Bible speaks of a God who cares passionately about material well-being, about relationships and our core identity. Spirituality exists in and through all these factors and not off in its own sphere.
The church can do a huge amount to respond to poverty – both practically through night shelters and politically through campaigning.
All these things are essential, but we should not limit ourselves to responding materially, as the gospel of Christ offers unique resources to address the poverties of relationships and identity.
The God of the Bible is not a solitary monad waiting to be discovered but is a relational God of the Trinity, who reaches out to us with love and reconciliation.
In addition to the practical and political efforts we can make to address material poverty, Christians should also be confident of the resources we have to help people build healthy relationships and rebuild their identity.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. This column is adapted from a manuscript of Kuhrt’s Hugh Price Hughes Lecture, presented at Hinde Street Methodist Church in London. It previously appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.
Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series. Part one is available here.