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ETHICS: Homelessness

“Citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19).

By Simon Cuff

Homelessness, for probably most of us, is something we see rather than experience. Or, rather, homelessness is something we try not to see as we pretend to ignore the person obviously sleeping on the streets, or to have not heard their request for money or something to eat. Even the language of “homelessness” distances us from confronting the reality of homeless women and men. We reduce homelessness to a state of living — a temporary or permanent lack of shelter or fixed address. We tend to think that being homeless is being without the kind of shelter most of us have come to take for granted.

A theology of homelessness, or better, a theology with and of homeless men and women, begins with pointing toward the full reality of homelessness. Strictly speaking, the lack of shelter or of a fixed address is not homelessness but houselessness. To be homeless is not simply to be without shelter, but to be deprived of the stable foundation and dignity which is basic for living life in all its fullness. Indeed, to be without a fixed address makes accessing much of modern life difficult or impossible — registering with medical professionals or holding bank accounts, holding down employment or receiving social security.

Shelter and a fixed address are basic requirements of living in a society, but the reality of homelessness reminds us that what homeless women and men are deprived of is not just a roof, but a home. Homeless people are not only those we can see in shelters and on the streets, but those who rely on friends and family in short spells. This is sometimes referred to as sofa-surfing. People who have to rely on sofa-surfing often don’t appear in the official statistics, which can lead us to underestimate the number of people who are without a home.

There are a number of causes of homelessness — poverty, unemployment, mental health provision, relationship breakdown, changes in social security, to name just a few. In the United Kingdom, homelessness has risen over the last decade in the context of sweeping changes to how the poorest in society are safeguarded and social security is paid. There are other factors too. It is notable that in the United States that whilst 13% of the general population is black or African American, black or African American people make up 40% of the homeless population (National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2018).

Whatever the circumstances that lead to becoming homeless, it is far easier to find one’s self suddenly homeless than it is to escape the cycle of homelessness. Many people are two paychecks away from being homeless.  We are more likely to find ourselves homeless than to be living the American dream.

Homelessness is not inevitable. Study after study demonstrates that homelessness is avoidable where there is social and political will. Where arguments are made against intervention on grounds of the cost of providing homes and appropriate services, the irony is rich. In his book Utopia for Realists (Bloomsbury, 2018), Dutch economic historian Rutger Bregman points to several studies that demonstrate the relative cost of providing the homeless with a home and access to assistance programs, compared to the higher costs incurred when homelessness is seen as a problem to be managed rather than in terms of people to be found homes: “Every euro invested in fighting and preventing homelessness in the Netherlands enjoys double or triple returns in savings on social services, police and court costs … relief for the homeless in short is a win-win-win-win policy,” writes Bregman.

Caution is needed here. Such an approach can all too easily instrumentalize homeless people or encourage viewing people primarily as economic units rather than human beings created in the image and likeness of God. Any theology of homelessness must begin with the inalienable dignity of each and every human person, and arise out of the recognition and preservation of that dignity.

In line with this fundamental dignity, people experiencing homelessness must be at the heart of any theology of homelessness. David Nixon’s Stories from the Street: A Theology of Homelessness does this by listening to homeless people themselves, and developing a theology of homelessness from their lived experience. Likewise, Bregman recounts a 2009 experiment in London, which gave 13 long-term rough sleepers £3,000 each with only one question: “What do you think you need?” The average amount spent by each person after a year was only £800. Eighteen months into the trial, seven had a home, two were about to enter their own apartments and all had made considerable progress in overcoming the cycle of homelessness in which they were trapped. Many of the participants emphasized the importance of regaining a sense of choice and control. Treating homeless human beings as human beings, reaffirming their dignity and encouraging their agency is the first and most important step in overcoming the apparent inevitability of homelessness.

This step requires a shift not only in how we think of homeless people, but in how we think of homes. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, set forth his vision for England in his Reimagining Britain. He underlines the importance of good quality (and hence regulated) affordable housing for the social fabric of any nation, but that the buck does not stop in creating houses: “If the purpose of housing was understood as creating communities and not merely building accommodation, the whole nature of the industry would be changed,” says the archbishop. A theology of homelessness goes beyond calling for houses, and is active in the pursuit of homes: creating places of community and belonging.

We as Christians have an important role to play in the creation of these communities, working with state and industry to provide houses, and particularly in establishing them as homes. As we follow Christ, we follow one who was born into a refugee family forced to flee a despotic tyrant (Matt 2:13-14) and one who seems to have been homeless himself: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20).

The Christian life is that journey towards our heavenly home which we begin in baptism, through which we are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (Eph. 2.19). Those of us who have found our home in Christ, cannot sit by whilst brothers and sisters created in the image of God remain homeless.

The Rev. Dr. Simon Cuff is tutor and lecturer at St. Mellitus College, London.




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