Every time I walk through a certain part of town I make sure I buy a coffee for John. He sits in the same spot in the same subway day after day, huddled under a thin blanket trying to keep warm. He’s been there for at least a year, but there’s no sign of him getting any closer to being housed.
In the last few years more and more people seem to be sleeping rough long term in Coventry. This is obviously a problem, and Coventry Council are rightly attempting to address it. Unfortunately, their solution leaves a lot to be desired.
They’ve given a contract for homelessness support work to the Sally Army. Yes, that’s right, the trumpet-playing, bible-bashing, military uniform-fetishising Sallies are now being used by the council to run, amongst other things, a temporary supported accommodation scheme for homeless people.
Now, my attitude to religion is similar to my attitude to penises – it’s fine that you have one, but don’t shove it down my throat (unless I ask you to). You can have whatever religious beliefs you want, and you have the right to stand on a box in town shouting incomprehensibly about your love of Cheeses. However, when religious groups are being given major contracts by local councils, their beliefs suddenly stop being irrelevant nonsense and start being nonsense that might affect the provision of services.
Let’s be blunt; the Salvation Army’s main purpose is to spread their brand of Christianity through different forms of “evangelism”. One of the main ways they do this is through working with homeless and vulnerable people – so while they’re getting paid by the council to run a supported accommodation scheme, they’ll be taking every chance they get to talk about their beliefs and trying to drag people to church. The council is effectively subsidising an evangelical campaign.
Using homelessness work as a fig-leaf for evangelism is particularly distasteful. The people who need homelessness services are all vulnerable in some way: whether they’re a long-term rough sleeper like John, a kid whose parents have chucked him out and he has nowhere to go, or a family who suddenly haven’t got a home because their landlord kicked them out, they’ve all been dealt a shitty hand by life. Enter the Salvation Army, who are delighted to discover an audience of vulnerable people to evangelise. The idea of “heaven” is very appealing if you’re living in hell on earth, but the promise of pie in the sky when you die doesn’t pay the bills now.
So that’s my first issue – the Sallies will use this contract as a taxpayer-funded opportunity for proselytising, rather than concentrating on solving the actual issues.
It’s not just service users who get exploited by the Salvation Army, though – their staff get a pretty raw deal as well. Just 6 months ago in November 2013 they were strongly criticised by UNISON for planning to drastically cut the pay and conditions of workers in their hostels – some faced pay reductions of thousands of pounds a year. This plan affected workers at hostels in Coventry, so the council should have been aware of it – so why would they deliberately choose to work with a charity that treats its workers like shit?
The SA are also signed up to the “workfare” scheme, which forces people who are on the dole into unpaid work placements. The scheme has had little success in helping people actually find employment, but it’s been great for the businesses that get some unpaid labour out of it. The SA treats them as if they’re volunteers, but they’re not there voluntarily – if you don’t go, your benefits get stopped. Considering how the Sallies treat their staff, perhaps it’s not surprising that they use workfare.
So, they’re shit to work for as well – but there’s more. Unsurprisingly, they aren’t big fans of queers.
Despite the predictable, mealy-mouthed opposition to “homophobia” in their public statements, the organisation has a long history of discrimination against LGBT+ people, both in the UK and internationally. (Incidentally, they don’t define what they mean by homophobia, and I strongly doubt their definition is the same as mine)
It doesn’t take much digging to find that the liberal approach to LGBT+ issues doesn’t last long – they still teach that “sexual acts should take place only in a monogamous heterosexual marriage”. So basically their position is “we’re not homophobic but queers can’t have sex” – well, thanks but no thanks. “If I can’t fuck, I don’t want your religion”, as Emma Goldman famously didn’t say.
That statement is bad enough in itself, but it gets worse. It was only 14 years ago that the Scottish Sallies wrote to Parliament opposing the repeal of Section 28 – which begs the question, how many people who donated to them were expecting the money to be spent on lobbying?
The counter-argument is that they don’t “discriminate on the basis of sexual identity in the delivery of [their] services” (emphasis mine). On one level, this is correct – the law forbids them from doing so. It’s not that simple though – as a queer person, I don’t feel comfortable around the Sallies, but they have a monopoly on homelessness support in Coventry. If I get made homeless, what am I supposed to do? Go and get help from a group of people who think I’m going to hell? No thanks.
The non-discrimination policy is utterly inadequate in any case, as it doesn’t mention gender identity – it offers trans people no protection from discrimination whatsoever. Which probably explains why they have no official UK policy on trans people in gendered shelters – however, in the USA they insist that trans women are housed with men, with extreme consequences.
Jennifer Gale was a trans woman who died sleeping on the streets, as she was unable to stay in a Salvation Army hostel because of their policy on trans people. The way I see it, they’ve got Jennifer’s blood on their hands.
To be honest, though, outsourcing council services to charities is a bad idea whatever the charity is. Obviously it’s a lot worse if the council chooses the tambourine brigade ahead of a secular or moderate charity, but any system which can lead to the Sallies running council services is fundamentally flawed.
Outsourcing doesn’t save money, and it’s a step towards the privatisation of essential services. It takes control away from the council and gives it to an unaccountable entity – in this case, a group run by grown men who like to dress up as soldiers to make their pitiful lives seem exciting.
Coventry Council should take its homelessness support work back in-house, fund it properly and provide decent services. Groups like the Salvation Army should be left to rot on the fringes where they belong.