What does the Bible say about homelessness?

Jon Kuhrt writes: It is a matter of historical fact that a huge number of the charities established to address homelessness were set up by committed Christians. Some retain a strong link to their founding beliefs; others have retreated from them.

Some may be tempted to assume this is just a piece of history, a natural consequence from a previously more religious age. But actually, faith-based activism has continued to re-invent itself over the last 15 years, with Christians along with those of other faiths, developing new ways to respond to poverty and housing need.

Despite this reality, faith has continued to be something of a contentious issue. Some of this is due to historical baggage: for example, in their famous books about rough sleeping, both Jack London (The People of the Abyss, 1902) and George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1932) were highly critical of the coercive and condescending approach of Christian organisations .

From Suspicion to Engagement

In 2013, the Lost and Found report was based on 75 interviews with people affected by homelessness about faith and spirituality. Although the research was led by an atheist, Carwyn Gravell, it sharply challenged how the homeless sector views these matters:

Faith and spirituality is a dimension of life that is largely ignored within the philosophy of mainstream service provision, regarded as irrelevant, or as a private matter best avoided, and even perceived by some in the sector with suspicion and outright hostility.

I would say that in the last 8 years, helped by reports like Lost and Found and agencies like Housing Justice, there has been a lot of positive change on this issue. There is a growing acceptance of the role of faith and spirituality and a growing mutual appreciation between local authorities and faith-based organisations. Faith is much less of an ‘elephant in the room’ than it was 20 years ago.

The most significant factor

But, the question I want to focus on, is what are the reasons for the enduring commitment of people of faith towards homelessness? Why is a subject like theology even relevant to the issue of homelessness?

I would argue that the most important factor is the Bible itself. Whatever someone’s personal beliefs are, I would argue that the Bible has been by far the most influential document in shaping society’s response to homelessness. It is therefore worthy of attention and analysis at an event like this.

I will share eight key themes, each supported by one example from the biblical text, which underpins the enduring commitment of Christians to this work. I hope this is helpful to both Christians who need reminding, and also to non-believers who are interested in understanding better the motivations of people of faith.

1. Every person’s individual worth

So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27)

Every single human being bears the image of God and is endowed with intrinsic, infinite value. However scarred and marred it may become, nothing can obliterate this mark of the divine.

2. Systems of welfare and justice

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap all the way to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and the foreign resident. I am the LORD your God (Leviticus 23:22).

The Hebrew law included in-built welfare systems relating to how crops were to be harvested, debts cancelled and limits put on accumulating land. These were all designed to curb the excesses of greed and address destitution.

3. Direct action for justice and compassion

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice…to set the oppressed free…Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

The Hebrew prophets, such as Isaiah, continually railed against the oppression of the poor and express God’s contempt of religious practices which maintain injustice and ignore the plight of the vulnerable.

4. Loving your neighbour in need

But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds…put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him (Luke 10:33).

In response to a clever, academic question designed to catch him out, Jesus tells a story to show that anyone in need, of whatever ethnicity or status, is your neighbour.

5. The homeless Christ

Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58).

Jesus, the ‘author and perfector’ of the faith himself faced the insecurity of no permanent address. Solidarity with human suffering is fundamental to Jesus’ victory – and a radical example to his followers.

6. Welcome and hospitality

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).

The early church expressed its convictions about Jesus’ resurrection by being an outward-looking community, displaying grace and hospitality across racial and social divides. This was a radical new way of being human in the ancient world.

7. The basis of God’s judgement

Come, you who are blessed by my Father…for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me (Matthew 25:34-36)

Jesus’ story of God’s judgement at the end of time emphasises the ultimate importance of how we treat those in need.

8. Grace, truth and redemption

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him (Luke 15:20).

Whatever people have done, God’s grace is always available to all who turn and accept the truth. Redemption and reconciliation are at the heart of the Christian gospel.

These are my eight examples of why the Bible has been so influential in motivating generations of Christians to provide practical help to people affected by homelessness.

Whilst I do not believe that people of faith have any monopoly on compassionate action, it is important to acknowledge the roots from which generations of activism have grown.

I will end with another quote from Carwyn Gravell’s Lost and Found report because it speaks to the direct relevance of faith to those who at the heart of this issue:

For homeless people, religious belief, practice and doctrine can help them come to terms with a past that is often characterised by profound emotional and material loss, enhance and give structure to the present where time hangs heavy for many, and create a purposeful future built on hope, fellowship and a sense of purpose.

This article is based on Jon’s lecture at the British Academy conference at Lincoln University on ‘Representing Homelessness’ where he spoke on ‘theological representation’. You can download the lecture’s powerpoint presentation here. See also Jon’s review of Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people and you can download for free the Lost and Found report. See also Jon’s discussion of Homelessness, faith and the future.

The heading illustration is Rembrandt’s preparatory sketch for his famous painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

Jon Kuhrt was Director of Community Mission for Livability (formerly the Shaftesbury Society) from 2002 to 2010, and Chief Executive of the West London Mission from 2010 to 2018, leading their work with people affected by homelessness and addiction. He is now Rough Sleeping Adviser to the government, specialising in how faith and community groups respond to homelessness. He lives in Streatham with his wife and three children, is a member of Streatham Baptist Church and is involved each summer with Lee Abbey Youth Camp. He is an avid cricket lover. He blogs at ‘Grace + Truth’ where this article was first published.

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14 thoughts on “What does the Bible say about homelessness?”

  1. Challenging post. I’m thankful for believers who help those who are homeless. They reveal the heart of God and Christ. As a quibble in this context I don’t like the use of Matt 25 as a text for the general treatment of people in need. I think it is specifically about the treatment of Christians; to have a heart of love for believers reveals one’s spiritual state. That being said, I realise there is a real danger of pharisaical nitpicking – of straining at gnats and swallowing camels. May the church be a caring church for all, especially those of the household of faith.

    • Thanks John for your response. I know that position on Matt 25 , that the focus of the Sheep and Goats is on how we treat believers rather than more generally, is taken by Ian and a number of other Biblical scholars. I don’t take that position myself – and certainly the majority of Christians involved in this work don’t judging by how often Matt 25 is used as a basis for practical work to help destitute people.

      But even if this passage does just refer to believers, it does not take away at all from the fact that these are believers who are hungry, cloth-less, homeless or in prison and that judgement is linked to how we respond to them. The scope of the injunction in no way takes away from its core thrust. As you say, to spend too long on this debate can be ‘pharisaical nitpicking’ when the thrust of Jesus’ teaching is to show care across boundaries and tribes (e.g. the Good Samaritan) or indeed the OT focus on the alien and the stranger in the land).

      I think the key reference related to the scope of the care we show is Paul’s plain ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ in Galatians 6. Paul’s emphasis should mean that the church community will be a model of love and care, but critically, it is an outward-looking one which seeks the welfare of ‘all people’ as we anticipate the ‘renewal of all things’.

      • Jon – well, I enjoyed this post – and I’m always very encouraged to see Christians taking seriously the exhortation to develop a social conscience (eg Luke 3:11) – rather than getting into details about the doctrines of life (important as they are).

        On the Matthew 25 business – I may be about to spout heresy (or what will be taken as heresy on this blog) – I’ve met so many good people in my life, with a social conscience and selflessly doing good, just because good needs to be done and not for any personal reward, who have openly rejected Christianity – and I’m not prepared to say that these people are not `in the number’ of the Saviour’s family – so I’m no longer prepared to say that the Matthew 25:34-36 verses only apply to professing Christians (while before, I did take this line).

        • Hi Jock – thanks for reading and the comment. I think that’s a good point. And the theme of ‘surprise’ is certainly a major one in Jesus’ teaching about God’s judgement. Matt 25 is one of a few examples where those welcomed into God’s kingdom were not aware of the significance of their actions.

          I like what Lesslie Newbigin wrote on this: “the question of eternal salvation and judgement is not a basis for speculation about the fate of other people: it is a an infinitely serious practical question addressed to me”

          One of the big themes in my working life has been the imperative of holding together the implicit witness of social action along with the overt Christian witness. Both are vital.

          • Thank you Jock and Jon for highlighting the particular interpretative discussion around Matt 25. I am very much with both of you in favouring the generosity of God’s welcome. Thank you Jon for the reminder of Lesslie Newbigin’s wonderful words on judgment and salvation.

          • And the theme of ‘surprise’ is certainly a major one in Jesus’ teaching about God’s judgement. Matt 25 is one of a few examples where those welcomed into God’s kingdom were not aware of the significance of their actions.

            Yes, absolutely. And the surprise works in both directions, too, remember: Matthew 7:21.

          • An atheist who does good is saved?

            As long as their ignorance is invincible, rather than vincible, they can be (not will be but the possibility exists).

            They still have to be aware that they are sinful and need to be saved, and their heart must be such that they would submit to Jesus as Lord if they did realise the truth. And they are not, of course, saved by doing good.

            But I wouldn’t rule out the impossibility. As above, there will be those who are surprised to discover they are saved; and there will be those who thought they were saved who will be surprised to discover they are damned.

  2. Good article, but it needs to be noted that the author doesn’t actually believe that Christians should help those in need – unless he has changed his mind. He is infamous for siding with Westminster City Council in closing down ‘soup kitchens’ in their borough, infamously saying that Christians actually enable those who are sleeping rough to continue in their lifestyle. He was instrumental in closing down the Salvation Army homeless outreach in Victoria and I personally know some where were adversely affected by his actions.

    Don’t believe any of this BS he writes- unless of course he has changed his mind, which would be great.

    • Hi Origen Adam,

      I am genuinely fine with being challenged or strongly disagreed with (plenty do) but I think you are misrepresenting reality in your comments.

      Firstly on soup runs, I have critiqued them and every week in my current role I am engaged in discussions about either how they can be better run or more connected in with services. I have been a regular in the past 2 years to the Westminster faith and volunteer group which brings these groups together. But the truth is, I was vocally opposed to any ban on them which was proposed back in 2011 when I was at West London Mission. Here is a Guardian article I wrote at the time which is pretty blunt about my perspective: https://www.theguardian.com/society/joepublic/2011/apr/01/soup-runs-homeless-westminster – the original article on which this was based was ‘Westminster’s homeless ban is wrong but soup runs need to change’ and this longer version appeared in the Church Times and Methodist Recorder and can be read here: https://gracetruth.blog/ethics/westminsters-homeless-ban-is-wrong-but-soup-runs-need-to-change/

      I don’t know what you are referring to about ‘closing down’ the Salvation Army outreach – I have worked, and continue to, alongside the Sally Army for years and if they decided to close something it would have been because of their decision and not because anyone from another charity told them to.

      So, it may disappoint you but I have not changed my mind. I continue to think that churches and Christians have a vital role to play in addressing homelessness and rough sleeping and spend literally my whole week encouraging that to happen. But I also think that the form of the help needs to be thoughtful and focussed on what really is effective in bringing hope, housing and wholeness to people sleeping rough. Here is a more recent piece about church engagement with homelessness: https://gracetruth.blog/faith-homelessness-and-the-future/

      • Sorry not to reply sooner – I’d fully expected the ‘Rev’ Paul to delete my comment as he does with anything I write, but my good friend Blair saw your reply and told me.

        I’m saddened to hear that you haven’t changed your mind. I remember writing at length a rebuttal to your article in Fulcrum but it looks like the ‘Rev’ has some sway there too as there are no longer any comments!

        I used to help cook and run the homeless drop-in at St James the Less in Pimlico. This was a daily drop-in and meal that went weekly and then bi-weekly I think, and then ceased altogether when the church stopped being inclusive – although I believe the current vicar has now resumed it.

        At the time, as can be read in the articles above, Westminster Council was trying to close down ‘soup kitchens’ in its borough and they claimed that by providing food we were ‘enabling’ homelessness. Presumably people were only homeless because they could get good food and sleeping bags that were better than those in Blacks – to quote Jon’s illustrious predecessor.

        The council were successful in closing down the Sally Army drop-in further up the road near Victoria and when I and several other religious folk complained we were sent a copy of Jon’s Fulcrum article as the definitive Christian view: https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/the-practice-of-grace-and-truth-with-homeless-people/

        In it Jon says that the only people who benefit from do-gooders giving money to homeless people are “Soho’s many crack and heroin dealers.” Unfortunately I don’t have access to my responses to the article but I do remember responding to this point. Whilst he may have a successful career in homelessness, some of us have still had many years of voluntary experience in this area. It is both naive and wrong for Jon to argue that Christians shouldn’t give money to homeless people. One of my friends used to be homeless and if he couldn’t beg enough money to feed his habit then he would have to attack people in the street with a hammer to get it. He only did this because he was addicted. Jon’s naive advice to fellow Christians and an evil Tory council directly led to Londoners being assaulted! Of course people should be given support to get off drugs and alcohol, and drug dealers removed from our streets, but saying we should stop giving money to homeless people is plainly wrong and stupid.

        This article also mentions his contact with Westminster City Council – the misrepresentation of reality certainly isn’t coming from me! As with many conservative commentators, Jon repeats the canard that people ‘choose’ to sleep rough. Like with his injunction to stop giving money to homeless people, this stereotype needs addressing. Many homeless people have spent many years on the streets, to them its home, and actually cannot cope with living within four walls. Others have told me that all the hostels are very violent and they feel much safer out on the street. ‘Choosing’ to be homeless is an unnecessary trope for conservatives to keep wheeling out.

        He even has the gall to boast that he refused to give money to someone who asked him at Clapham Junction station. In stark contrast Jesus is recorded as saying “Give to all those who ask”. Jon’s departure from scripture here is illustrative of religious conservative thinking and it saddens me that the religious conservative family that Jon grew up in produces this hardline approach to vulnerable people. I dread to think what sort of advice he is giving in his present role.

        As an aside, listen to any conservative Christian about Jesus’s encounter with the rich young ruler. According to them Jesus was only saying that this one person couldn’t inherit eternal life, selling all your possessions was never universal. But the encounter with the Pharisee was universal – and everyone needs to be ‘born-again’. These people twist the scriptures to mean anything that suits their narrow upbringings and lifestyles and some of us have had to personally contend with the evil that religious conservative people have thrust upon us. I pray that in another ten years Jon will have changed his mind.


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