Given at the CSAN Parliamentary Reception, 2 November 2016.
Good afternoon, it is a pleasure to be here once again in Parliament for the sixth annual Caritas Social Action Network reception. It is greatly encouraging, as it is every year, to see so many charities, supporters and parliamentarians gathered together to acknowledge and celebrate the work you all do for the most vulnerable in our society.
This year, the theme of the CSAN reception is homelessness. The choice is not difficult to understand. A walk through these streets at night, or early morning will show what a problem this is. It is addressed by many members of the Caritas network present today and, of course, it is closely connected with the Gospel imperative of attentiveness to the most needy.
There have been sustained increases in people who are homeless, or threatened by homelessness, over the last six years. Charities here have felt greater strain as local authorities in England have cut back on homelessness prevention and the Supporting People budgets. We are also witnessing a rise in hidden homelessness: people perhaps with a job, but who are sleeping on sofas or in spare rooms or in BandBs because they do not have a home of their own. We will be sitting next to such people on the tube and in our churches. This issue was highlighted this year in Depaul UK’s report, ‘Danger Zones and Stepping Stones’, describing the plight of young people who stay with a different friend each night or go to all-night parties to avoid sleeping on the street that night. These are under the radar, the hidden homeless.
Once somebody has lost their home they find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle. So preventing homelessness must be a priority. Here are some well-known starting points. Family relationship breakdown is a leading contributor to homelessness among single men, and a leading cause of family breakdown is financial difficulty. Then there is the scourge of drug and alcohol addiction. And of course, those without suitable accommodation upon release from prison are the most likely to find themselves on the streets, back in this vicious cycle.
Charities here today respond with dynamism and creativity to these challenges. Marriage Care works hard at family relationships. This year Depaul UK worked with more than 1,400 offenders through prison-based advocacy services. Members of the Catholic network are working to support people who have fallen into addiction. Housing Justice has a network of winter night shelters across England and Wales. Tonight, more than 1,000 homeless people will find a welcome in over 50 churches across England. Caritas Salford’s Cornerstone Centre, among many others, provides support for 150 regular visitors who come for a hot meal, a shower, a haircut, a community nurse and access to the internet for accommodation and job searches, and provide advice and emergency accommodation for 50 people every day. For every paid member of staff, they have, there are ten volunteers! Impressive! All over England and Wales, parishes and charities offer a range of support to people who are homeless: from extensive skills training, counselling, hostels and move-on accommodation, to simply offering a hot meal and clothing to those with nowhere else to turn. Indeed, in the Diocese of Westminster we calculate that in our parishes over 4 million hours of volunteers’ time are given every year.
This is love in action, the corporal works of mercy, sharing the goods of one of the wealthiest societies on earth with those at its peripheries, the victims of economic and social systems which remain heartless unless enlivened by a sense of moral purpose and generosity.
We welcome this government’s new focus on those least secure in our wealthy society and its recognition of the powerful work that can be done by working with charities, the experts on the ground. Indeed, policy announcements bring hope: plans to stimulate the building of truly affordable housing and funding for new approaches to the prevention of homelessness by local authorities with partners are welcome. We are always ready for greater partnership with government, central and local, and believe, from the evidence of work achieved and its depth of motivation, that such partnerships truly serve the common good, the good that omits nobody.
Last week's second reading of the Homelessness Reduction Bill, saw a concerted effort by MPs and homeless charities to address the need for reform of statutory homelessness provision.
I am delighted that the government has decided to offer ‘full and unfettered support’ for the passage of this bill through Parliament. It is even more welcome to hear the Minister’s commitment to government funding for the extra costs to councils arising from the changes it proposes.
A final word. We are all aware of the link between imprisonment and homelessness. We know from recent events that there is an urgent crisis in our prisons at this time: unprecedented and rapidly escalating levels of suicide, self-harm, assaults on staff, violence including murder. Yet we know that better prisons are possible and the government's commitment to prison reform is a true cause for hope. We need courageous improvements in sentencing, education, staffing, health services, family contact and pastoral care. Prison reform is not about being soft on prisoners or on crime. It is about being civilised. As well as recognising and imposing just penalties, it is about reducing reoffending, genuinely helping victims, getting peoples' lives back on track so that they are a benefit and not a burden to our communities. It is about a criminal justice system that delivers real justice for all.
Here, too, we are willing and well placed to act in partnership for we are as present to people in prison as we are to the homeless. And I am delighted today to launch our latest document on prison reform. It is called The Right Road. Drawing on expertise from Catholic charities, chaplains and experts working in this field, it makes recommendations for reform, giving the Church a clear voice in this important work. Copies are available at the Reception desk and I gladly commend the document to you all.
So I thank you all for the work you do. Your work is rooted in faith in God, in God who gives each person an innate dignity that is to be upheld no matter the circumstances, and in God who gives his grace, in a thousand different ways, to raise our fallen nature to this steady and determined desire to create here a better society, one which reflects more closely God's compassion and mercy, which we all so clearly need!