This year the theme for poverty & homelessness action week was ‘Who Counts?’ As with any good theme there were a number of interconnected resonances to work with. One is the whole idea of counting and value or worth. We say something counts because it matters. This leads to consideration of who counts in the eyes of the world vs. who counts in the eyes of God; and for Housing Justice it raises the issue of how homeless and other marginalised people are valued in our churches and in our society. So by choosing ‘Who Counts?’ as our theme we wanted to encourage people in churches to recognise that homeless people count and should be treated as people of worth.
Another strand is the contested issue of the number of homeless people. One of the first acts of the Coalition Government, and one that I think is to be commended, was to change the way in which the number of people sleeping rough is measured. The government knew that the change would mean that the number would go up, but they were prepared to take the risk of being criticised for rising homelessness figures in order to have a better idea of the true figure. And the number did rise dramatically. It went up from just under 500 to around 1,200 and the latest figure, collected entirely under the new system, is just over 1,700. So we wanted to use the theme ‘Who Counts?’ to alert people to the change and to encourage them to count or estimate rough sleepers in their area to act as a check on the official figure.
A third strand is the upcoming UK census. This is taking place on Sunday 27th March and we wanted to use ‘Who Counts?’ to enlist churches to make sure that homeless and marginalised people, together with migrants and refugees, are able to be included in the census and be counted along with the rest of us. But there is more to the census than counting. In 2001 the last national census was mirrored by a church census (or at least a very large scale survey). Churches Information for Mission organised the distribution of survey forms to samples of churches from the Church of England, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, United Reformed Church, Salvation Army, and to self selected Pentecostal, independent evangelical and house churches. The churches then distributed forms to everyone (adults and children) who attended services at their churches during census week. In total 1,700 churches returned batches of forms and about 120,000 individuals took part.
As with the national census, the point is not that the counting took place so much as what the information was used for. The reason why it is important for homeless, marginalised and migrant people to be included in the national census is that the information collected will be the basis for planning and providing schools and hospitals and houses and all the other public services we need. My hope is that providing as complete a picture as possible will give organisations like Housing Justice better ammunition as we argue for the homes and services people need. In the same way the reason for collecting the information in the Church Life Profile, for that is what the 2001 church survey was called, was to enable churches, nationally and locally, to plan for their future life and mission. So did it make a difference? It is not really for me to comment, but I do encourage the local churches and denominations who took part to look back over the development of their life and mission over the last ten years and to reflect on the impact, if any, of the Church Life Profile.
And don’t forget to fill out your census forms…
Alison Gelder is now Director of Housing Justice but from 1999 to 2002 she was chief executive of Churches Information for Mission.