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on the world: a view on human rights

Could Your Mosque (Other Religious/Community Space) Offer Shelter to the Homeless this Winter?

One in five adults and one in four children, or fourteen million people in the UK live in poverty. Rising rents, fewer state benefits and public service cuts, coupled with low and stagnant wages, mean at least 57% of households living in poverty include a member in paid work.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this poverty is homelessness, with the current housing crisis recognised even by the government. According to housing charity Shelter, the number of homeless people in the UK is at least 300,000: one in every 200 people in the UK and in London, one in every 59.

In addition, the number of rough sleepers [1] in England alone has more than doubled over the past decade to 4751 people, according to the latest government statistics. Bucking the trend, Greater London Authority (GLA) figures for 2017/2018, which put the number of people sleeping rough in the capital at 7484, show the figure has fallen by 8% in that time.

Copyright: Al Manaar Cultural Heritage Centre

Copyright: Al Manaar Cultural Heritage Centre

Homelessness industry and traditional responses

Homelessness and rough sleeping have long existed. In response, a homelessness industry has grown up over the past few decades, worth £700 million in London alone [2], sometimes focused more on its own survival than the wellbeing of the homeless community it is supposed to serve.

Traditional responses to rough sleeping are failing to deal with the current size and scope of the rough sleeping crisis across the country. This is inevitable given the lack of support services that are required, through cuts to and the decimation of mental health, rehabilitation and domestic violence services, for example.

Recent research by the London Assembly and charity No Second Night Out (NSNO) shows that a minority of rough sleepers turn to their local authority, which has a primary duty of care if a person becomes homeless, for help; often people do not know about services or how to access them, or had a bad experience when attempting to do so. A 2014 mystery shopping exercise by Crisis found that in most cases, in the 16 local authorities in England it visited, single homeless people were turned away without being offered adequate advice. Increasingly digitalised council services also means that it can be almost impossible for vulnerable people to physically access services.

Community response

Many people have not turned a blind eye to the increasing numbers of rough sleepers. Over the past few years, grassroots community initiatives have sprung up to fill the gaps created by the lack of public services and support. A sector traditionally served by churches of various denominations, other religious and secular groups have started to play a very active role, particularly in community and street kitchens for the homeless and the provisions of clothing, sleeping bags and other requirements and services.

In 2017, following its massive response to survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire in west London, the Al-Manaar Cultural Heritage Centre became the first mosque in the UK to join a local night shelter scheme, the Westminster night shelter which runs from October to May each year by the West London Mission, which also runs a day centre, offering an important life line and services to rough sleepers in central London. The scheme also includes 13 churches and one synagogue.

In 2017-2018, 15 guests were accommodated on a rotating basis, with Al-Manaar hosting with a hot meal, activities for guests and bedding in a secure and sheltered hall each Tuesday for several months. Over the winter, the shelter scheme managed to help 64 people move into permanent housing and since May, an additional 24 have moved into their own homes.

After a successful first year, Al-Manaar will take part in the scheme again this year, and mosques in Barnet and Merton will be joining their local schemes. In London, night shelters, mainly run voluntarily by churches, are in place in most boroughs and are credited with having contributed to the reduction in rough sleeper numbers in London over the past year, among other factors. Westminster is the area with the largest number of rough sleepers in the UK, or 29% of all rough sleepers in London.

Mosques also played an important role during the freezing weather conditions in March 2018 opening their doors across the UK to rough sleepers in Manchester, Leeds, Canterbury and elsewhere. There is so much more they and other places of worship and community-focused centres can do.

Pivotal role

Across London there are numerous night shelter projects; some boroughs like Islington, have several simultaneously. There is a need for more. While the schemes run in some boroughs accept a handful of rough sleepers other can take several dozen. Some run for 3 months and others for over 6 months.

The models they use vary too, although a rotating model whereby guests spend one night a week at seven different venues in the same area each week, as in Westminster, seems to work best; in some areas rough sleepers stay at the same venue for a week or two – which they may not have access to during the day – before moving on to the next one.

While some venues offer just an evening meal and sleeping bags, others offer showers, washing machines, legal and medical advice, and some allow accompanying pets too. Some offer breakfast whereas others do not. Facilities depend on the capacity of both the host venue and volunteers. Usually, rough sleepers admitted to such schemes are low-risk (for example, without dependency issues or disabilities) and are vetted in advance by a community hub or day centre. Some schemes, such as Glass Door in south London, allow individuals to refer themselves. For many there must be a local connection to the area which often excludes foreign rough sleepers.

In recent years there has been a shift towards programmes that get rough sleepers off the streets altogether, such as Housing First, currently being piloted in three regions of England. Community-run night shelters have been found to play an important support role for such schemes and in preparing people for life in the community.

Run by the community, night shelters offer rough sleepers a way back into community life and also help to create a support network, often in coordination with professional support services. Volunteers bring their own skills and knowledge which they can share and use to help rough sleepers in their own community. Night shelter schemes also help to create community cohesion and unity between different faith and social groups through a cause of immediate common and local concern.


Whereas local authorities once sought to criminalise community groups for helping the homeless, they are now starting to appreciate the value of the community-based approach. Encouraged by falling rough sleeper numbers in London, the GLA and Westminster Council are now working with the West London Mission on the winter shelter being run in 2018-2019. Not just faith groups, Haringey and Islington councils are working with grassroots NGO Streets Kitchen on projects to help rough sleepers in north London. The GLA is also offering grants for projects to support and set up new shelters.

NGO Housing Justice is working with the GLA on this. Housing Justice supports around 80 night shelter schemes nationally as part of the Housing Justice Church and Community Night Shelter network, which in 2015-16 hosted 1920 people and helped over 500 guests to find permanent accommodation. The scheme is not open just to churches but to all religious and non-religious groups who wish to set up a shelter. Housing Justice offers a Shelter in a Pack package to help set up a shelter and asks for a £1500 fee towards the costs of setting up a scheme. Nonetheless, before setting up a durable scheme in the long-term, potential hosts are welcome to pilot a short-term scheme, of perhaps 4-6 weeks.

The role of local authorities, however, must not be limited to offering money. Most areas contain empty council-owned buildings or those the council can gain access to, which could be used to host night shelters by groups who may have the will but not the facilities. An example of this was given by footballer Gary Neville, when he allowed a homeless group to run a Manchester shelter in a hotel he owns in the winter of 2015-2016.

Thank you to Al-Manaar for a seminar it hosted with Housing Justice on Mosques and Homelessness on 26 September 2018.

The Westminster night shelter starts in the first week of October; referrals are made via the West London Mission. A list of London night shelters is usually available at from late October/November and an Atlas of London’s Homelessness services is due to be made available shortly.

[1] Rough sleeping is defined as “People  sleeping,  about  to  bed  down  (sitting  on/in  or  standing  next  to  their  bedding)  or  actually bedded  down  in  the  open  air  (such  as  on  the  streets,  in  tents,  doorways,  parks,  bus  shelters or encampments). People in buildings or other places not designed for habitation (such as stairwells, barns, sheds, car parks, cars, derelict boats, stations, or “bashes” which are makeshift shelters, often comprised of cardboard boxes). The  definition  does  not  include  people  in  hostels  or  shelters,  people  in  campsites or  other  sites used for recreational purposes or organised protest, squatters or travellers.”

[2] Figure from Housing Justice

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