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Policy inaction means many will be cold, hungry and lonely this Christmas

(Alamy)

Archbishop of York

4 min read

Walking down from the BBC to the House of Lords last week, I passed a homeless person huddled on the street.

It was a very cold day. A cardboard sign in front of him said: “I’m very hungry.” I walked past him. Stopped. Paused. Wondered what to do. Turned around, and as I did so saw a young man give him a bag of food. I thanked God for that young man, and for the kindness of his gift. Then I walked on. 

A few hundred yards later I saw another homeless person. And another sign. “I am very hungry,” it read. Around the corner was a Tesco Express. I bought a four quid meal deal, gave it to her, and we chatted for a minute. 

We must resist the numbness that is so tempting when we don’t know what to do

Seeing homeless people on the street is, sadly, not an unusual sight. Not in London. Not in York. Not anywhere. But many of us aren’t sure how to respond. If we give money, what will it be spent on? If we give food, is it just to salve our conscience? The feelings of worry, doubt and perhaps numbness about the right thing for us to do are persistent.

Perhaps the gift of time can sometimes be the best gift of all. To engage with someone in conversation is to acknowledge their inherent dignity. To acknowledge our common humanity. To maybe even, at some very hidden level, acknowledge that all of us could end up on the streets if a few things went wrong in our lives.

It’s worth taking a moment to praise the work that local authorities and many charities do in this space, especially in cold weather. The Warm Welcome campaign, through which groups of people across the country have opened up community spaces during the winter months, shows us what is possible when we turn poverty and isolation into warmth and connection.

But on a personal level, as I walked into the House of Lords last week, it felt as though conversation isn’t enough. We must resist the numbness that is so tempting when we don’t know what to do. We must not step back from taking action when things feel too difficult.

Even as legislators, the task feels daunting. Yet we must not shy away from holding decision makers to account, indeed holding ourselves to account. The issue is complex, but it requires us to do better. Because, in fact, there is clear consensus that where there is political will, it is possible to make significant change.

I’ve been asked to write a Christmas article. Yet at this time of year, when so many will be enjoying time with their loved ones in warmth and comfort, we also see the consequences of policy inaction which mean that many will be cold, hungry and lonely. But it is clear that more people are facing homelessness in this country because of the cost of living and housing crises. 

Sadly this is not a new problem. Mary and Joseph were once homeless. They walked the streets, and doors were closed to them. There was no room for them.

Therefore, might we see that the challenge – and the invitation – of Christmas is to make room for them now? To open doors. To welcome them in. To raise our political aspirations and act. 

There is something we can all do to make this possible. For the Christian, this means to turn around and see how we can greet Christ in each person we meet, and receive the blessings of a life lived for others – even hear the angels’ song of peace. But that song is addressed to all people of goodwill, and so each of us has our part to play in living for others and welcoming the excluded. Then we too will sing that song of peace. Our world needs it. 

 

Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York 

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