From the Vicar – St Andrew’s Church Parish Magazine July 2013

Doorway Spring Fair

On the late May Bank Holiday Saturday we had a fantastic Spring Fair for Doorway at St Andrew’s. A huge team of volunteers, generously supported by a willing public, raised a fantastic £3,000 for the work of Doorway. As Chair of Doorway, I’d like to congratulate everyone on a superb result with heartfelt thank you!

But when I see homeless people asleep in the church doorway or have them knocking at the vicarage asking for help, I get very angry. Why is it that in 2013 the seventh richest nation on the planet has so many people without a home of their own? There might be only two or three people sleeping rough in Chippenham at any one time, but go to London or even Bath and you can’t avoid the evidence of destitution on our streets. At Doorway we help roughly 250 people a year. At any one time we’ll be welcoming 40-50 guests at our twice-weekly drop-ins, many of whom are ‘sofa-surfing’ on other peoples’ couches or teetering on the edge of homelessness.

While Doorway’s help is appreciated by our guests, we are very conscious that it’s not enough. Giving someone a rough sleeper pack is better than nothing, but they are still going to sleep out in the cold and the wet. Drop-in sessions twice a week are a real help. But what about the other five days?

State Responsibility

There really shouldn’t be a need for charities like Doorway, or the Salvation Army Food Bank, or any of the other groups plugging the gaps in our so-called Welfare State. We live in one of the richest nations of the world, and are members of a generation which is overall richer than any that has gone before us. In 1942 Sir William Beveridge identified the Five Giants of Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness, and Disease in his famous Report, and the Welfare State that was established in its wake was meant to banish them for ever. It’s not just that they haven’t been eliminated yet. In 2013 they are all on the march again, and getting worse.

One of the great achievements of Governments between 1945 and 1979 was they lessened the gap between rich and poor. Progressive taxation redistributed wealth. There is considerable evidence that it’s inequality (rather than absolute poverty) that lies behind social misery. More equal societies experience less in the way of mental illness, drug use, have better health and educational performances, suffer less from violence and crime. The benefits are spread across rich and poor. On the other hand, unequal societies do worse on all these measures. If you want to find out why, I can’t do better than recommend the book “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (Penguin, £9.99).

Welfare or Charity?

Another achievement of the post-war Governments was we built more houses. Homelessness fell. When I was a probation officer in Manchester forty years ago I could be pretty confident of finding accommodation for a homeless man before 5pm if he turned up at the probation office in the middle of a Friday afternoon. Not now. After 1979 Governments stopped building enough houses in the public sector, and homelessness has been rising ever since.

There’s another development which is fast making a bad situation worse. The Government calls it welfare reform. It feels more like a winding up of the Welfare State. The Prime Minister has stated that the increase in food banks is proof that the Big Society is working. He would like to see the charity sector grow, and welfare spending from taxation be replaced by charitable giving. I saw this model working (or rather, not working very well) when I was in America training for the ministry in the late 1970s. The church where I was based had the first ever food bank in the city of Boston. We helped a lot of people. But I often wondered what poor people did who didn’t live in our part of Boston. The trouble with charity is that its provision is patchy. It’s hit and miss whether there’s a local charity for your needs in your town. If you pitch up homeless in Chippenham at least there is Doorway. If you pitch up homeless in Malmesbury, or Calne, or Marlborough, or in one of the villages? I don’t know.

Figures from the Trussell Trust (the biggest network of UK food banks) reveal that it is changes to the welfare system that are the most common reason for people resorting to food banks. We haven’t yet seen the full impact of the benefit changes being introduced from April, but many of our Doorway guests are fearful they won’t be able to manage. And I am fearful for them.

Private Wealth & Public Squalor

Those of us in the churches know that churches never have enough money to pay their bills. I once knew a priest who ministered in quite a wealthy area, where the same complaint was always being made. Church members were moaning they couldn’t afford their parish share, they didn’t have the money to pay for repairs. But their
vicar disagreed. “The church” I remember him saying “has plenty of money to meet all its needs. The trouble is, most of it is still in the pockets of its members.”

You could say the same about the United Kingdom. In spite of the recession and all our other woes, we are still the seventh most wealthy nation in the world. Some of us might remember Harold MacMillan’s election slogan “You’ve never had it so good.” That was in 1959. Over half a century later The UK has got it better still. Or rather, some people have. In 2010 (these are the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics) the average UK household had a net worth of £232,000 – which incidentally is pretty close to the average price of a house. But this number hides a massive inequality. The top 1% of households own a minimum of £2.8m each – that is 120 times greater than the average. Add these rich 1% together, and together they are worth at least £67bn. It’s worth comparing this with the figure for the Government’s deficit, currently £95Bn. You can’t help wondering that if we had a less unequal society, and some of this accumulated wealth was circulating among the mass of the population, we’d have fewer people destitute on the streets.

When Our Lord taught us to pray, he suggested we ask God “Give us this day our daily bread.” Most of us have more than enough for today. A few of us have considerably more. Why can’t we have a society that shares what we have, better? Your friend and priest,

Simon Tatton-Brown, St Andrew’s Church, Chippenham

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