It is not the responsibility of government to solve the problem of homelessness, argues Dr Sean Walsh. It is the responsibility of us all. The homeless person does not present a set of problems to be solved but a unique centre of absolute worth who can help us reconfigure our own moral landscape.
Adam Holloway MP told a debate at Westminster Hall recently that sleeping rough is “a lot more comfortable” than going on military exercises. He should know as he’s been in the army and has spent a few days pretending to be homeless in central London. That said, when I was sleeping rough in Wiltshire several years ago, I don’t remember many of my ex-military fellow sufferers brimming with enthusiasm for their new life in a coffee shop doorway.
I became homeless in Salisbury several years ago. As is often the case homelessness was the end state of addiction. I was in active alcoholism and had been for many years. At no point did anybody force me to drink and the consequences of my drinking were entirely foreseen. I knew where my choices were taking me and I knew where they were taking my young son. I drank anyway. But let me be quite clear also that these choices were born of a genuine illness, as much spiritual as physical. And if you believe (as I do) that human persons are not merely material objects but are biological systems animated by a spiritual principle then a spiritual illness (or disorder) can be just as serious as a purely physical one.
Is there a “solution” to homelessness. Not at the level of government. The state -with our connivance- invades our lives at the point of birth so our default tendency is to look to it for solutions. But when we actually turn to it for help as often as not it is useless. The government is a machine and therefore does not have the lightness of touch that is necessary to efficiently and sympathetically engage with this crisis. You need look no further than the current controversy over universal credit. The government has incurred billions of pounds in debt. It then reconfigures the benefits system and justifies the short-term pain on the grounds that the least well-off need to be taught the art of budgeting. Sometimes satire writes itself. The best we can hope for from the state is a sort of piecemeal amelioration.
It is not good in any case to contract out our individual conscience to the state. For a Christian, the obligations here are individual and structured around Matthew 25. We are obliged to order our interior lives so as to be vehicles of grace and to carry out the “corporal and spiritual acts of mercy”. What we have, materially and spiritually, we have as a gift to be passed on. What you do, or fail to do “to the least of us” you do also to Him. Regardless of how somebody comes to be one of “the least of us”. Regardless also of how you came to have all that you have (your capacity for hard work and your intelligence are also a gift, after all). That is a call to a radical sanctity. Properly understood, Christian social teaching is a universal exhortation to sainthood.
I accept that such teaching is developed within a theological framework many will not accept and is inculcated by church hierarchies that have fallen out of favour. We can look to philosophy instead. Plato said that philosophy “begins in wonder”. This does not only mean that we take wonder in the vastness of the universe or in the beauty to be found in nature or some such. The philosopher will also find wonder in the mundane and the possibilities it offers to our moral imaginations. The ordinary serves as a veil for the extraordinary. In the dreary everyday life of the homeless addict we can find an opportunity to revive what we believe it means to be human and how variously instantiated is that centre of absolute value that is another person. People fall into homelessness for reasons that are invariably familiar: addiction, mental health, abuse etc. But each person inhabits those reasons in a unique way and the possibility for healing exists in each case. Philosophy can serve to remind us that we can take wonder even in the offensive and occasionally dangerous behaviours of the homeless and addicted and that on the basis of that wonder we can discharge our duty as moral agents to draw these lost people back into our community of souls. Start by talking to them. The genius of the Big Issue project is not that it gives the homeless person an opportunity to earn money, important as that is. It is that at the point of purchase the buyer and the seller are drawn into each other’s world- however briefly, they share a moral space. To the benefit of both.
In Salisbury, not 30 yards from the bench where the Skripals collapsed, there is a tented community in the ground floor car park of Sainsbury’s. Not once has a television camera pointed in that direction. I have no doubt of the good intentions of the likes of Adam Holloway MP. But responsibility for this lies with us all. It’s a big ask, so best get on with it.