Quakers have a long history of expressing deeply held spiritual values in direct positive action. This short video tells the story of the social housing project at the heart of Winchester Quaker Meeting House, demonstrating the very practical power of active concern in community.
When Winchester Friends bought a beautiful old house to serve as their Meeting House in 1974, it was with two purposes in mind: to provide homes for vulnerably housed people, and as a place for Quakers to meet to worship. The building continues to serve both purposes today, with our meeting rooms on the ground floor, and 7 bedsits above for single people in grave risk of homelessness.
We recognise how difficult it is for people who have been homeless, even those who have a job, to save the deposit needed and manage rent and bills. We therefore provide short term tenancies for up to two years, priced below market value so that people get used to budgeting for when they move on. Council tax and bills are included in the rent. We are a landlord offering a stepping stone from homelessness into other more secure accommodation. Although our property is a registered charity, we do not subsidise our tenants, nor is it our intention to make a profit.
Our tenants are referred to us through the local authority housing department, and come to us for a variety of reasons. One tenant told us that she needed to get away from an abusive, violent relationship, another told us of an all-too common situation where a private landlord evicted five people in a shared household, with only a month’s notice. We aim to offer friendship and a safe place to live, but not formal emotional, psychological or financial support. We estimate that since the Project took on its current form, about 50 tenants have passed through our doors. Despite the obvious disadvantages of living in a building which also serves a worshipping community and hosts a number of hirers, we almost always have a waiting list.
Comments about living in the Meeting House are positive. One resident said,”The Meeting House offers a safe place where you can feel human again. There’s time to heal, a sense of belonging, it’s given me a chance to heal mentally, to restore me.” Another said “The residents are really welcoming. We have chats, make friends. There’s a beautiful garden and it’s a lovely old house with spacious rooms.” Our warden was told “It’s affordable, and this has allowed me to get back on my feet financially. I’ve saved enough to be able to afford a deposit on my next place.”
British Quakers have been challenged at both Area and National level, to consider how we are perceived by those who are not connected to our worshipping communities. It is worth noting that in Winchester we are seen by some, perhaps especially on our larger and poorer housing estates, as people who offer help in times of housing need. It is, possibly, the thing we do as a local church which has the biggest impact on our city.