In English we make a difference between a house and a home. A house is a building that puts a roof over your head. A home is a nest of relationships that sustain and provide feathers to wing your heart. We own a house. We belong in a home.
Homelessness week reminds us of this. A recent story of a returned soldier, still suffering from the trauma of his war experiences, who had divorced, lost his house, and now slept with his children in a car, was shocking. It was not that he did not have shelter – the car provided that. It was poignant because he and his children were so alone and transient. The only effective relationships they had were to one another. They were disconnected from society, from stable friendships, from the possibility of continuing education and from services. These relationships are what living in a home is about. The home houses a web of relationships to other people, and through them to society.
It is a scandal that people should lack shelter and have to sleep rough. We think of them especially at homeless week. But we think also of the greater number of people who are living at the edge. They are an illness, a broken relationship or a redundancy away from losing their accommodation. They are also a sign that society has been lacking in effective compassion, and is prepared to let the most vulnerable members of society lose their home.
The Jesuit Social Service Report, Dropping off the Edge 2015 explains the dimensions of homelessness and also highlights the scandal of its persistence. Having a stable place to live is one of many factors that form the coinage of disadvantage. It is associated with other factors, such as poor access to education, prison sentences, physical and sexual abuse, low income, mental illness, unemployment and lack of skills. These factors work together to trap people into disadvantage. Together, they make it more likely that people will be homeless.
The Report shows that acute disadvantage is clustered in a relatively few numbers of regions and postcodes throughout Australia. The scandal is that since the last report in 2007, the same regions and postcodes are represented among the most disadvantaged. As a society we have failed to address the disadvantage in which connections with society fray and homelessness breeds.
Homelessness Week is important because it enables us to see what we normally turn our eyes away from – the number of people who have no predictable place in which to sleep, even in the middle of our winter. It draws our attention to a deplorable situation.
But noticing alone does not heal. To do this we need programmes that are directed to the most disadvantaged areas, which are sustained and in which the many services to address the many factors of advantage are coordinated.
But above all the programs must build trust in the people living in these areas, inviting them to be active in addressing the factors that keep people disadvantaged and perhaps homeless. Where the threads of connection have been cut in communities, new threads must be woven, and people allowed to test their strength. It is not enough to cut the foliage so that birds can fly freely. We must also feather the nest in which fledglings can be fed, and so can learn how to fly and be part of the flock.
– Andy Hamilton SJ