Every November, a non-denominational Commemoration Service is held at St Martin-in-the-Fields to remember those who have died homeless over the previous year. The names of those who have died are read out to a congregation of those who are homeless or insecurely housed, together with those who work or volunteer with London’s homeless population.
This year’s service on Thursday 14th November featured moving performances from Streetwise Opera and Choir with No Name – both organisations that work with people with experience of homelessness. The Choir With No Name sang ‘This Is Me’ from the West End production The Greatest Showman, and Streetwise Opera performed a piece created by the performers called ‘The Journey’, inspired by the Philip Glass opera Orphee.
In the weeks prior to the service, London’s homelessness services provide the names of all who are known to have died in the past year, which are compiled by charity Housing Justice. Although the number of homeless deaths have been receiving recent media attention, the numbers remain shocking – with 129 read at the service at St-Martin-in-the-Fields. The average life expectancy of a rough sleeper in the UK is now just 44 years old for men and 42 for women – 30 years less than the general population.
And homelessness in the UK continues to rise. For every 10 people recorded rough sleeping in 2010, there are now 27. Recent street counts of rough sleepers suggest that on any one night there are almost 5,000 people sleeping rough in England. However, the charity Crisis estimates that the true number is far higher - closer to 8,000.
Data released at the end of October showed 3,985 people sleeping on the streets of London between July and September 2018 - a shocking 28% increase compared with figures from 2018.
Loss of rented accommodation is now the leading cause of statutory homelessness in England, with rising housing costs in the private rented sector also playing a significant factor.
Chief Executive of Housing Justice, Kathy Mohan said:
It is a real privilege to be involved in the annual service of commemoration, which Housing Justice have contributed to for many years now. This is such a poignant service, both as a memorial to those who have passed, but also as a reaffirming of the determination of those working with people experiencing homelessness that no person should die without a home in 21st century Britain
St-Martin-in-the-Fields is well placed to host this service – Westminster, where the church is based, has the highest concentration of rough sleepers in England and Wales. The church has been supporting people who are homeless and vulnerable for over 100 years, starting when the Revd Dick Sheppard opened the church’s crypt space to soldiers travelling to the WW1 trenches from Charing Cross station. The churches work with homeless people eventually led to the setting up of the dedicated charity The Connection at St-Martin-in-the-Fields, which today helps thousands of people every year to move away from the streets of London.
The Connection are based just next to St Martin’s, and hosted a gathering after this year’s Commemoration Service to enable the congregation – many of whom rely on their services - to spend time reflecting and remembering those who have died.
Pam Orchard, Chief Executive of The Connection said:
It’s incredibly important that we take time to remember and honour those who have died on the streets and this service provides the opportunity to do that. It is appalling that homeless people die in today’s Britain. Having a safe and secure home is a basic human need, and yet is something that far too many people are going without.
The service acts as a reminder of the scale of the work that must still be done to ensure that all homeless people are supported on their journey towards recovery. However, it is also hugely uplifting, as it brings together who have been homeless, are still homeless, or support homeless people in a celebration of life, and reminds us what we are capable of achieving if we all work together.”
THE COMMEMORATION SERVICE
The Commemoration Service is an annual service to remember those who have died homeless in the preceding year. It is held at St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Westminster.
St-Martin-in-the-Fields is an architectural jewel sitting in the corner of one of the world’s most famous squares. It’s a place of encounter between God and humanity, the wealthy and the destitute, culture and commerce.
THE CONNECTION AT ST-MARTIN-IN-THE-FIELDS
The Connection at St-Martin-in-the-Fields helps thousands of people every year to move away from, and stay off, the streets of London. It does this by tackling the underlying causes of rough sleeping as well as offering practical help.
It offers provide tailored employment support and training, volunteering opportunities and housing advice. It also provides a variety of specialist services to help clients cope with the physical and psychological effects of being homeless, empowering them to develop their strengths and ability to change their own future and recover from homelessness – working with clients, not for them.
The Connection also offers hot meals and showers, access to medical appointments and somewhere warm and safe to sleep in its Emergency Accommodation.
Housing Justice is the national voice of Christian action to prevent homelessness and bad housing. They believe that human dignity is challenged by the lack of a decent home, and aim to mobilise Christians united in their determination to work with and for homeless and badly housed people.
Streetwise Opera is an award-winning performing arts charity for people who are or have been homeless. They run creative programmes in five regions across England and stage critically-acclaimed operas.
Their productions platform the skills of their performers in a professional arena, showing that whatever life throws at them, they can achieve great things. Underpinning these, their workshop programme offers a dependable source of creativity in lives where everything else can be changing.
Their most recent production, Tell Me The Truth About Love (Sage Gateshead, April 2018) in partnership with Royal Northern Sinfonia, was described as ‘a powerful and inspiring show’ (The Guardian) and ‘a joyous and passionate celebration’ (The Stage).
CHOIR WITH NO NAME
The Choir with No Name runs choirs for homeless and marginalised people. They’re a diverse bunch of folks; all genders, all colours, all ages - everyone is welcome.
They sing pop, rock, soul, gospel, reggae, musicals... you name it, they’ll give it a go... although they’ve yet to try any thrash metal or grime. They have three choirs: in Birmingham, Liverpool and their newly merged London 'superchoir' run in partnership with Look Ahead. They have plans to launch a new choir in Brighton later in the year. Each choir gets together to rehearse every week (with a decent dinner at the end of rehearsal!) and they perform regularly.
They were founded on the premise that singing makes you feel good; it distracts you from all the nonsense in life and helps you to build up your confidence and abilities.