A dash of treacle: on whether and how Catholic responses to homelessness stand out

In 1864, Father Nugent of Liverpool set up a night shelter for homeless boys, one of many projects he established for destitute children and young people in the city. A few years later, he described its work; the boys ‘were provided with a wash, a basin of coffee and half a pound of bread with a dash of treacle. You may judge of the extent of its work when in 1867 we gave 48,205 suppers and 2,913 nights lodging for boys.’[1] Any glance at the annual reports of Catholic homelessness charities today shows that we are still counting meals, showers and beds, although now we also look for evidence of impact, that elusive but not easily measurable change we hope the work achieves. But then, as now, the bare figures tell only one part of the story, the measurable part. The more interesting part is what else happens in all these activities; to people’s dignity, to their emotional and mental health, to their resilience.

It may be in these intangible dimensions that any distinctiveness of practice lies. It’s hard to get to grips with distinctiveness. It’s not about saying that Catholic response to homelessness is better than other responses, either faith-based or secular. Neither would we want to make a claim that doesn’t hold up. But it is worth asking whether the history, founding inspirations, motivations and other factors that have shaped Catholic charities, both young and old, have given elements of distinctiveness which are still generative today. In my experience of working in faith-connected homelessness charities, and in the research I’m currently doing, it’s clear that the charities work very hard – and successfully – at values-based practice and organisational culture. And whilst their values as stated are usually very inclusive, they have roots in Christian tradition, whether the Vincentian vision or other religious charisms, or individuals like Father Nugent.

It may be that charities are rather like Catholic social teaching (CST) in this regard. What’s distinctively Catholic about CST is more in how it’s formulated, and the inspiration, motivations, and commitments that it embodies, than the actual content. So too with charities, the distinctiveness is often in many elements that are taken for granted as part of the furniture – links with parishes, volunteers motivated by faith, the founding story – but which influence the culture and practices, even if intangibly. This is an open rather than inward-looking Catholicism, that others can inhabit even if not themselves Catholic. Just as many outside the institutional church find CST attractive as an ethical tradition, so too our charities engage people to join their work on the basis of sharing their values even if not themselves Catholic. Indeed, the inclusiveness enriches their distinctiveness, just as CST becomes more valuable when it dialogues with insights from other disciplines.

But I’d still want to make a tentative argument that there are some qualities likely to be found – or to be taken seriously - in Catholic work with homeless people. Father Nugent embodied these in the 19th century just as Pope Francis does today. First, the compulsion to respond to the most destitute, and homelessness is often the marker of that - concern for the poorest keeps re-appearing in Catholic social engagement, in new forms in different places and times. Then an unconditional response – no questions about eligibility or who is deserving or undeserving (which makes life challenging when operating contracts for statutory services). There is a foundational respect for each individual’s dignity, leading to a relational and personal approach – but one which is deeply practical, and pragmatic in matters such as finding funds and partners. And finally, a belief that change is possible, that lives can be transformed. Father Nugent saw ‘genius and talent going to waste’ in the thousands of children living on Liverpool’s streets in the 1860s.

It’s likely that these qualities are also found in charities or services with no faith connection at all; or that there are Catholic charities that don’t embody these – or at least, not in all their services – and that’s fine. It’s also possible that they can be lost from view, or re-discovered, or that they get overshadowed by other influences, whether sector-based good practice or contractual requirements.  This is where Catholic social tradition has a crucial role to play, giving grounding and conceptual strength to what otherwise can be dismissed as idealistic or irrelevant. But the kind of resources we need from the tradition must be alive to the challenges and constraints charities face today, to the strengths of their inclusiveness and the ambitions and risks of their strategies.

When Father Nugent died in 1905, a statue of him was erected in the city centre, funded from public subscription, in recognition of his work for the poor and destitute. Catholic response to homelessness has a rich history.

Pat Jones is currently doing PhD research in the Centre for Catholic Studies at Durham University focusing on Catholic homelessness charities. Previously she worked for Depaul International, CAFOD and other charities.

[1] Canon Bennett, Father Nugent of Liverpool, (Catholic Social Services, 1949).