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Homelessness in Bournemouth and the 'common good shaped church'

Updated: Jun 8, 2023


By Revd Dr Ian Terry

Ian was Rector of Bournemouth Town Centre until his retirement earlier this year. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at Winchester University and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. In this article he explores partnerships for 'common good building' in Bournemouth.



On my first day as Rector of Bournemouth Town Centre, back in September 2009, I discovered that, for the evening of my formal welcome, some folk had wanted to get rid of the embarrassment of a Salvation Army Soup Kitchen for homeless people in our main churchyard. I stopped that. Humanity only thrives if the weakest are helped. But an exploration began, for me, about what was going on with homelessness in Bournemouth.


Homelessness is absolutely in the public eye at the heart of Bournemouth. It is visible on a massive scale. Homeless people camp in churchyards and shop doorways, under the pier, in the woods, and on park benches. Soup kitchens and food banks proliferate and there is competition between them. Sadly, it is the same people we see, year after year, and some are vulnerable teenagers. Homelessness is worse than it was in 2009. It is a bigger challenge than any one agency can solve by itself.


Housing agencies have their part to play. Lack of affordable housing is part of the problem nationally, but a home is more than four walls and a roof; it is a place of security in which you are valued and respected, where your self-worth can grow into healthy interdependence. Homeless people suffer multiple bereavements, usually including loss of family and supportive relationships, whilst they have lost their positive mental health, with loss of job, income and – early on in this downward spiral – loss of self-esteem, with a devastating sense of ‘subjugation’ – that is, always feeling second best. Loss of self-esteem can lead to reliance upon substances, which accentuates this multi-faceted problem. Thus, housing, although critical, is always only part of an equation that needs many approaches to balance it. Attaining good mental health sits alongside a spirituality that affirms and feeds self-worth and ultimate purpose.


Common good building

Ultimate purpose is hard to sustain in a society where only tangibly successful individuals are valued. This is a massive challenge to common good building because minority groups of all kinds find power, in unsubtle forms, working against them. Common good building only works if all are valued, and, for that, affirmation of the ultimate worth of those who consistently do not ‘fit in’ is best achieved by partnerships in which all complement each other. One example is the charity ‘Footprints’, which supports recently released offenders; this demonstrates the positive impact of consistent mentoring. Thus, although resolving homelessness is complex, sustainable steps towards its eradication are possible in partnerships with others.


Partnerships, therefore, are the obvious approach. For sustainable empowerment, these partnerships must include homeless people. That inclusive empowerment is essential to common good building. So, I began looking at partnerships for the common good of Bournemouth. ‘How to do it?’ was the practical question.


The exploration began reflectively, then I began talking about it, and it soon became a formal research project with Winchester University. All this started with the intuitive ‘hunch’, from my experience as a parish priest, that partnerships with others who want the common good are fundamental to doing something about it. I tested this ‘hunch’ by taking a sample of partnership working in focus groups. Informed consent was carefully negotiated, and these small informal groups proved to be opportunities for some homeless people to share their reflections on what being homeless is about. Each person agreed to their words being recorded and used in this research. Similar ethical protocols were observed in preparation for a day conference, when homeless people joined councillors and representatives of local faith communities, business, and the police. The conference was monitored ethically by supervisors from Winchester University and members of the national charity Together for the Common Good whose work offers networks of learning and practical commitment to common good building.


Lateral subsidiarity

Common good building respects everyone, not just the majority, so particular care is taken with the research conditions offered to rough sleepers. It was an ethical concern throughout the practical research to prevent any harm to anyone participating. This approach gave voice to rough sleepers in small groups. Each person was respected. Decisions were made by negotiation with people alongside each other, rather than by control exercised from above. I chose to call this process ‘lateral subsidiarity’; that is, decision-making not top-downwards but alongside. At the heart of the research process was the trust generated by a respectful personal relationship. Interpersonal trust is built locally, because people can meet each other, and it empowers local people by avoiding centralised decision-making. Trust and self-determination can, thus, be forged over time in local associations.


Conversations in focus groups and at the conference were recorded, transcribed and analysed alongside what others have written. Six reflections emerged:

  1. Two potentially incompatible approaches to qualitative research, constructivist and faith-based, worked together in critical correlation. An innovative approach to research methodology, incorporating faith perspectives, but not dependent upon them, has been successfully trialled.

  2. Common good building was also incorporated into grounded theory methodology.

  3. Lateral subsidiarity, side-by-side partnerships empowering participative relationships, is best rooted for building common good within local associations.

  4. The research ethics principle, ‘Not about me without me’, was practised. Resulting research data affirmed that principle and illustrates the importance of listening to the voices of rough sleepers and seeking their collaborative participation in common good building.

  5. The research concluded that parish churches can work in partnerships for the common good, when they look with partners towards long-term causes of homelessness and find solutions grounded in empowerment, lateral subsidiarity and the up building of human dignity.

  6. I have reflected on what a common good shaped church looks like and offered models of inclusive churches that habitually reflect on what God is already doing for the thriving of creation and seek practical opportunities for partnerships to pursue that locally.

Possible directions for future research

  • Organising community ethics forums in partnership with other agencies. These forums use the networks of partnerships that the church has developed to open the discussions to everyone who wants to come. This is a model of practical empowerment.

  • Developing a digital passport to give rough sleepers control over how much of their past medical, mental health, addiction and offending history they share with others who are offering help.

  • Creating a ‘one-stop-shop’ for health care (with partnerships between the NHS, local authority, local businesses and churches).

  • Building into churches, and their networks of partnerships, structures for offering long-term mentoring.

  • As sustainable empowerment, a suitably confident and articulate homeless, or ex-homeless, person can be a spokesperson for others. Churches, and other local organisations, can also designate, train and resource one of their members to mentor such a spokesperson. This will further enable the voices of rough sleepers to be heard and taken seriously.

  • Active support for the police in their determination to support the integration of homeless people into the community.

  • Courses in Christian Listening and in Addiction Recovery will teach patience, respect, empowerment and openness to hope.

  • The domestic economy is dependent upon basic skills in finance-management that many people have never been taught. Churches can assist with finance skills and, specifically, debt-management.

Conclusion

The partnerships and commitment to common good building that have resulted from this project bring increased trust and more mutually respectful relationships. The research conference has been spoken of locally as a ‘tipping-point’ when partnerships ‘took off’ and people from different agencies began working together more.


Two areas have emerged for further development of this research methodology. First, that ways be found of fully including more vulnerable people in the research sample without compromising the safety or well-being of anyone involved. Secondly, the focus groups should aim to prepare vulnerable people to participate for a whole day. There are also four areas that are ripe for future research:

  1. Further explore the tension within ethics of the rights of individual homeless people and the responsibilities of society.

  2. Analyse the distribution and abuse of power within twenty-first century understandings of ecclesiology.

  3. Further develop understanding of the subjugated knowing of homeless people.

  4. Explore more deeply what a common good shaped church looks like.

This draws together my reflections and research on homelessness and common good building in Bournemouth over the past 14 years. I am now focused on the areas for further research.



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