Christmas draws ever closer. It is a time of joy, as we decorate our homes, exchange gifts, and celebrate the birth of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Yet anyone with sensitivity cannot be joyful at Christmastime without thinking a little more of people whose circumstances give them little reason to celebrate. It is no accident that here in Glasgow in the build-up to Christmas the Santa Dash 5K run has become such a success, with participants dressed as Santa and raising funds for many different charities. Over in Edinburgh on the same weekend, many more were camping out on one of the coldest night of the year in Princess Street Gardens’ Sleep in the Park, including our Moderator of the General Assembly and other Church folks. The aim was to raise awareness of homelessness. The Moderator said, “There is for Christians something compelling about the reality of homelessness that lies at the heart of the Christmas story…the homeless Christ child, the refugee Holy Family.”
Back here in Glasgow, a sculpture created by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz depicting Jesus as a homeless man sleeping on a bench has been installed outside St. George’s Tron Church of Scotland in Nelson Mandela Place. Again it is hoped the statue will raise awareness of the plight of homeless people. Nevertheless, it has proved to be a controversial artwork. Some have criticised its expense, suggesting the money could have been better spent supporting homelessness charities.
I am uneasy about it for a different reason. For me, it presents a very incomplete picture of homeless people, and therefore an inaccurate one. The number of people who resort to sleeping on city benches and shop doorways represents a small fraction of the homeless, and their plight is nearly always linked with mental health issues, which need distinct professional intervention. A far greater number of homeless people are not immediately visible. Some would say they are not actually homeless. They may have a roof over their heads. In night shelters, hostels, bed-and-breakfasts and private lets, too many of which fall woefully short of acceptable standard.
These people may not appear in the statistics trotted out by government agencies. But their accommodation is quite unsuitable in comparison with the standards most of us will enjoy this Christmas. Especially if children are involved, camping in a sparsely furnished let with personal possessions contained in a couple of black bin-bags. In my book at least, these people are homeless. These are the folks who are turning up at our Foodbank this Christmas. Last day we had 26 clients in two hours at our centre alone. They rely on the generosity of strangers to feed themselves and their children. Some have travelled from far away countries where their situation would be far worse than even the worst here in Scotland…but that does not excuse the authorities that send them into our communities with nothing, expecting them to sink or swim.
The problem of homelessness goes far beyond the individual dossing on a bench. It is for all of us, not just Christians, to do all that is needed to offer homeless people, and all who find themselves dispossessed of the basics, a standard of living that accords with basic human decency. Perhaps Christians are best placed to highlight the great social need around us this Christmas, as we mark the birth of the Son of Man who had nowhere to rest his head.
May I wish you all a happy and peaceful Christmas. Melvyn Wood