Homelessness and simplicity of argument in social justice

By Sam Tomlin

The issue of homelessness has always intrigued me on many levels. I am by no means an expert, but having spent time with rough-sleepers during my time at university and my involvement in Haringey borough’s winter night shelter over the past two years, I hope I have started to understand some more about the issue.

The first thing to note, is that, according to Shelter homelessness is defined as the ‘most extreme form of housing need.’ This means it is not just those who have to sleep on the streets, but those who are in temporary accommodation, unable to afford a roof over their heads. Homelessness is also not just a living condition, but something which affects all areas of one’s life: relationships break down, you cannot get a job without a permanent address and the danger of abuse of all forms increases; especially for women – in 2010 it was reported that 28% of homeless women have spent a night (or longer) with an unwanted sexual partner to ‘accommodate themselves.’

The number of homeless people in the UK is very hard to calculate (often because of the definition), but most figures seem to have it at around 400,000 which is the size of a city like Bristol. Finally, it is suggested (again by Shelter) that someone in the UK will lose their home every two minutes.

There is no question that homelessness is a terrible thing to happen to anyone. A few thoughts have struck me over the past months, however:

Speaking to the ‘roofless’ in Haringey and in Oxford, I have learnt that causes of homelessness are extremely varied and there is certainly no simple ‘reason’ why people end up on the streets. What strikes me most is that many people, even as recently as six months ago, seemed to ‘have everything together’ and the prospect of homelessness would have seemed very unlikely. A small bad decision here or there, a relationship breakdown, or sudden debt, often come without planning and before you know it, the situation has deteriorated.

Secondly, the fact that the causes are so difficult to understand means that the cure is also very difficult to pin down. There are many wonderful charities like Shelter, Centre Point and Crisis which look to find long-term solutions for the homeless, as well as organisations such as Haringey Churches’ Winter Night Shelter of which I am a part which do not offer long term solutions, but simply meet a need during the often desperately cold winter months. The fact is though, that people often disagree about what is the best thing to do, shown in part by Westminster Council’s decision last year to outlaw soup-runs. This was not done out of spite or selfishness, but those making the decision truly believed it would benefit the homeless in the long run.

Finally, a thought which has bothered me most of my life and moves beyond homelessness to the whole of social justice (inspired by my fellow blogger Sam’s post a few days previously). I have often thought of the absurdity of this world: how can someone, somewhere own a watch worth £50,000, a yacht worth £5m and a house worth £20m when someone else maybe just a few miles away is starving for food and will be sleeping on the streets. Is a comparison such as this a useful one to make, or is this simply the collateral damage of the capitalist way that poverty will one day be entirely eradicated? Going a step further, a man has a mansion with 20 rooms in it and he sleeps in just one. What would happen if he gave the other 19 to 19 homeless men in his city? Again, I am aware of the difficulty of this and ultimately the impractical nature of it. He would need to seriously think about health and safety, inform the council etc. etc.

However, I feel that we, in the West, often hide behind the barrier of the ‘impractical’ and ultimately end up doing not very much. This has certainly been a theme in my life. I once heard that Mother Teresa’s feet were massively deformed by the end of her life. The reason was that whenever her convent was given second hand shoes for the dying and homeless, she would root around for the worst pair so no one else had to wear them but her. Years of doing this, had left her feet massively deformed.

Imagine what the world would look like if people had this attitude. Imagine what the UK would look like if just 100,000 families took someone who was homeless into their spare room (schemes to assist in this already exist such as with Depaul UK: video of the scheme).

Am I being ridiculous? Is the use of ‘simplicity of argument’ helpful in this kind of debate?

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