Opinion

One in 50 Londoners are homeless. So this faith group decided to do something about it

There will be 33 flats at social rent for young people who are homeless, as well as a warm and welcoming space for the community to get together

Walk north along Deptford High Street from the Anchor and look up to your right. You’ll see a crane. It’s on Frankham Street, behind Phil’s fruit and veg stall. It rises from the centre of a nearly complete six-storey building where once stood the Shaftesbury Christian Centre – which, since 2007, has been home to The Bear Church.

This site is steeped in social history. Nearby, in 1844, “eight Christian men and women” met in a loft above a cowshed, with a vision to teach the children of “the criminal classes” to read and write – which of course also meant feeding and clothing them. This was a defining moment in the history of the Ragged School movement.

The site where the old building stood. Image: The Bear Church

Think of the London of Dickens. Poverty was rampant and the Deptford Ragged School soon filled with bare-footed ‘children dressed in rags.’  Not the cheeky street urchins of the Oliver Twist musical, but children living in abject poverty, with little hope and no future.

Six years ago, The Bear Church – guardian of the legacy of the Deptford Ragged School and deeply committed to supporting this community which remains one of the poorest in London – was about to become homeless. The freeholders of the Shaftesbury Christian Centre, a charity entirely unconnected to Deptford and its people, decided to sell the land.

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Faced with moving or disbanding, the congregation made a bold decision. They embarked on a major housing/community development in partnership with a newly formed housing association, J49 –  the aim being to buy the site, retain it as a community asset, and use it to provide some desperately needed social housing.

Now with a completion date of Spring 2024, this development offers 33 flats at social rent to young people who are homeless – kids lacking family support and the safety net of supportive families. With homelessness rising and political will lacking, this initiative will provide shelter, security, and a launch pad for young people to build their futures.

The plan for the development in Deptford. Image: The Bear Church

But it’s not just about providing a roof over someone’s head. The auditorium, café and meeting rooms on the ground floor will be a warm, welcoming, safe space for the residents, church, local organisations and businesses to come together to create relationships and community.

Whether the need is refuge, support, education, wellbeing, or wanting to explore their creativity, the doors will be open. This space encapsulates the project’s broader vision of fostering community development, personal growth, innovation, aspiration and care for the environment. The ecological impact of the building work is being minimised using modern methods of construction, while a ground source heating system and solar panels will reduce emissions by 82.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually.

Another exciting aspect of this initiative is the partnership model it is creating. Working with Lewisham Council, the Greater London Authority, and the local community, The Bear Church and J49 are learning how community and faith groups can unite with local and regional government to solve social problems. Imagination, empathy, compassion, and social responsibility are combining with the worlds of policy, planning, management and finance  to build something profoundly impactful. In a world where the profit motive overshadows community need, this project showcases an alternative model for other faith and community groups to explore.

Michelle, who is part of the current congregation, grew up in and around Deptford. In the 1990s she was a youth worker for the Shaftesbury Christian Fellowship and lived on site. She remembers the cold and discomfort of that post-war building – frost on the windows and mould in the bathroom. She visited the new building a few weeks ago. “I’m almost crying,” she said. “This is beyond what I imagined. Walls are not going to be damp. My hope for those who’ll live here is that, whenever they come back to their flat at the end of the day, they feel they’ve come back home.”

The building site, which will soon become an important development for the community. Image: The Bear Church

Today, one in 50 Londoners are homeless. Rent for a studio flat on Deptford High Street approaches £2,000 a month. A home in Deptford is beyond the reach of most young people. We need to change this landscape. We need to address inequality, deprivation, poverty and homelessness. And we need some hope. There is transformative power in hope and in community.

So, despite the relentless, depressing news of economic and social collapse, we hope you are uplifted and inspired by what’s happening in Deptford. Working in this community, we see the challenges faced daily by our friends and neighbours. But with this project, we also see hope, creativity, courage and love. Together, a community is not just constructing a building; it is crafting a more inclusive, sustainable, and compassionate future.

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