“Our night shelters are needed now more than ever”

Bishop of Edmonton, Rev Rob Wickham, has been involved with Housing Justice for a while now. This March he stepped into the role of Chair of the Board. Here we learn more about Rob the man, as well as Bishop Rob and what makes his role at Housing Justice so important to him personally and professionally and also to us as a Christian charity.

What motivated you to join Housing Justice?

 “I have a passion for issues that relate to housing, homelessness and houselessness. Housing Justice comes from a very fine heritage of Christians who want to act as well as speak about these issues in a prophetic, serving and ecumenical way.

This passion comes from the very first night shelter that I worked at- Alison’s Kitchen in Newcastle. I was a young ordinands on placement in Wallsend, and I went each Monday night to the soup kitchen, as it was known, under the railway arches. I met some fabulous and very broken people.

From this I later worked in the Shrine church of St Mary’s Willesden, where the church ran a nightly night shelter and nightly evening meal for anyone, no questions asked. The brilliant parish priest had a real heart for social justice and was contagious for the wider community.

I became a Vicar in the Kings Cross area of London, where we helped to begin a homeless project CW4S, and then as Rector of Hackney, we were key partners in the Hackney winter night shelter. I’ve therefore been involved in this work for 25 years.

I remember especially, working with the team at New Horizons in Somers Town, one Maundy Thursday, a day when the church remembers Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. We opened the church all day to the homeless population, some of whom were connected to the night shelter project. Throughout the day we offered pedicures, foot massages, refreshments and company. This was so different to the usual washing of feet that I had experienced, and we caught a glimpse of heaven.”

You’ve already chaired your first board meeting, how did that go?

“The Board members and staff team are excellent people, and I enjoy working with them. This makes Board meetings important, strategic and pleasurable.”

What are you looking forward to achieving for HJ?

“The issues relating to housing are some of the most crucial that we face in the 21st century.   I’m looking to build upon the former Chair Bishop James Langstaff’s legacy. I also recognise the important impact of faith in affordable housing, hosting and night shelters, and I’m looking forward to supporting Housing Justice through these important issues”.

Some of the projects coming up at HJ are:  Equipping Shelters (project in London to help night shelters), the annual Homeless Sunday event and of course expanding the Hosting project. What do you see as your role in these?

“The role of the Chair is both inward facing, supporting the charity and the staff, providing accountability and a listening ear, but also an outward focus of inspiring and imagination, making sure that housing remains an important agenda in the public square”.

You’re not afraid to challenge authority in the interests of the religious beliefs of any faith. Can we expect you to be outspoken for Housing Justice?

“Am I my brother’s keeper is a question asked by Cain when his brother Abel had been murdered when God asks of Abel’s whereabouts. I wrestle with this question, as it relates to responsibility. The easy thing would be to wash our hands of the misery of others, but I believe that any social issue can only be tackled with an adult conversation, where society takes a role in accountable responsibility.

There is the African proverb of it takes a village to raise a child, and the same sentiments can be used in housing. When we see homelessness, or substandard housing as something which is accepted in a society, we have missed the point. Housing has been, for too long, a commodity to be used for personal gain or profit. Somewhere to be ourselves, a place of identity, a place to build community, and a place of safety is key to flourishing. Houses are not purely economic units, but need to be places of liveability and flourishing.”

What do you think are the priorities for faith communities in relation to housing equality and in particular the growing numbers of people without housing?

“I long to see a Britain where night shelters are not needed, but in the current period of time, Christians are stepping up and supporting, loving and cherishing those with no home, for whatever reason. Our night shelters are needed now more than ever. This is a priority as we provide shelter, and as we provide community. The other priorities include affordable housing. In addition, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has launched a commission on housing, and we look forward to working with the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, on this as well, taking on a further national perspective.”

What is your message to supporters of HJ?

“Thank you. Let’s work together, let’s get our hands dirty, let’s have fun building community and let’s make a difference and let’s tell our friends. We also need to be collecting stories. Stories change people just as much as a list of facts and figures, and we have an obligation to listen to the stories, especially of those affected by housing decisions and policy, to share more widely. This advocacy role is key to Housing Justice. This is why Homeless Sunday is a critical Sunday, to tell stories and change perceptions and attitudes.”

Which passage supports this message?

“Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” This comes in John chapter 14. To obey Jesus teaching is to love. To love Jesus means that we have to, as a natural response, serve our brothers and sisters. So, Jesus makes this clear that when we love, and when we serve, he and the father will come and make their home in us.

This is, for me, the ultimate being at home. Therefore, our actions in housing and homelessness are to love and to serve, because this is what leads us all to a place of wider community flourishing. We are not called to look after number one, but the Gospel has a priority, a bias to the poor, and this is where our acts of service and love need to be oriented.”

Housing Justice wants to reach a wider and more diverse base of supporters, and one way is through greater use of social media. You’re already making good use of Twitter, can we expect to see lots of tweets about HJ in the future?

“I do hope so.”

Gives us an insight into Rob

“I support Plymouth Argyle Football Club, which has been a painful experience this past season. I’m praying for better things over the next 12 months. I’ve three lovely children, at a mixture of secondary, primary and pre-school ages, and a fabulous wife, Helen, who is amazing.”

“Our night shelters are needed now more than ever”
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