The Homeless Jesus statue serves as a pillow for a homeless man in Washington D.C.
By Claire Bolderson / Special to the Post-Gazette
LONDON — From Washington, D.C., to Chicago, to Toronto and Madrid, cities across the world are embracing a life-sized bronze statue of Christ curled under a blanket on a park bench. Homeless Jesus, as the statue is known, has been welcomed at the Vatican, installed outside a church in Davidson, N.C., and can be found at a busy intersection in Indianapolis.
But not in London.
Here, the sleeping figure, identifiable only by the wounds on his feet, is struggling to find a home.
The latest effort failed when the City of Westminster Council rejected a planning application made by Methodist Central Hall. The Methodists wanted to place the sculpture on the sidewalk outside their imposing baroque-style church and conference center near Parliament Square.
The crumpled figure would “provide a reminder to us in the Church of our responsibility to the poor and the marginalized,” says the Rev. Tony Miles, Deputy Superintendent at Methodist Central Hall.
Some of those “poor and marginalized” are all too evident on the streets of London where homelessness is a growing problem. Official figures show the number of “rough sleepers,” as those sleeping out at night are officially known, has doubled in the capital since 2010. Westminster, in the heart of the city, has the highest level of rough sleeping in the whole of the United Kingdom.
“The sculpture could generate understanding and generosity towards the homeless and that would be a good thing,” said Rev. Miles.
Conservative-led Westminster Council has been accused of lacking exactly those sentiments in its treatment of the homeless in the past. Last year Labor politicians accused the Council of trying to export its homelessness problem by re-housing destitute families in much poorer parts of London’s north and east.
The Council had previously faced criticism over plans to ban soup kitchens and other mobile food services from some parts of the borough. They said the services encouraged the homeless to gather in certain areas. But the plans were eventually dropped in the face of furious protests from charities, campaigners and the press.
Westminster Council declined to provide anyone for an interview on the subject of the Homeless Jesus. But a short written statement said that planning permission for the sculpture had been refused on the grounds that the borough is already crowded with more than 300 statues and monuments.
Almost half of them are in the royal and governmental heart of the city around the Houses of Parliament and Whitehall. There are eleven in Parliament Square alone including those of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln, poised high on a plinth in front of his giant carved chair.
According to the council, the area “has reached a saturation point.” So no more statues are allowed.
But at Methodist Central Hall, whose cavernous domed hall was home to the first-ever United Nations General Assembly in 1946, church leaders are perplexed.
“We don’t think we’re in the saturation zone,” said Rev. Miles, who points out that the building is closer to Westminster Abbey than to Parliament Square. “There aren’t any monuments around here except the one outside the Abbey.”
He is referring to a memorial to those killed in the India and Crimea wars of the 19th century that stands just outside the Abbey’s gates. It is the only monument visible from the entrance to Methodist Central Hall.
Artist Timothy P. Schmalz is equally perplexed. The Canadian sculptor who created Homeless Jesus said, “I think that there’s a misunderstanding with Westminster Council. This is more of a symbol than a sculpture, more of a movement than an aesthetic piece of art work.”
Mr. Schmalz said, Council leaders are wrongly comparing the piece to the statues of former political leaders that crowd Parliament Square.
“This does not require space like the Churchill monument. It’s not going to be on a five-foot granite base,” he said. “The Methodists humbly want to place a park bench up against the side of their church,”
The park bench includes enough space for a passer-by to sit down next to the shrouded figure. That was done deliberately to help people get inside what Mr. Schmalz calls the “bubble” of homelessness.
But the artist acknowledges that Homeless Jesus is not without controversy.
Some communities have declined to give a home to the sculpture because they believe it disrespectful to depict the Son of God as a homeless vagrant.
Others worry that it could attract the homeless to their area.
But Mr. Schmalz said the public needs to confront the problem, particularly in London where a shortage of homes is driving up rents and pushing property prices way beyond the average person’s means.
“I can see how people don’t want to be reminded,” he said. “But homelessness has to be acknowledged and in a way that people can understand.”
For now, Mr. Schmalz is not looking to install his work anywhere else in London. He will await the outcome of an appeal lodged by Methodist Central Hall with the government of the United Kingdom. The Methodists have launched a petition to back their case. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will have the final say.
Claire Bolderson is a British journalist and documentary maker with more than 25 years' experience at the BBC. She wrote this for the Block News Alliance, which consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.
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