Homelessness Week 2020 (August 2-8) is taking place in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and ANDY HAMILTON SJ writes that the week is a crucial reminder of the naivety and recklessness of the policies that have produced homelessness. The way forward must be built on respect, and respect begins with a home.

Homelessness Week is appropriately held in mid-winter. As we experience cold and world-weariness ourselves we can better enter the personal hardship suffered by people who are homeless. Community leaders are often deeply affected by the charity events in which they spend a single night sleeping on the floor with a cup of soup for dinner. We begin to realise how disempowering it would be to live without a home, a postcode, an address. It makes difficult so many things we take for granted: cooking meals, washing clothes, hygiene, dealing with government agencies, and having access to employment or education.

For families it means living in constant anxiety. The lack of a home, too, can condemn to a less than human life the young people in the justice system with whom we work at Jesuit Social Services.

COVID-19 is giving us a new perspective from which to see homelessness. It has made us see better its implications for public health and it has revealed starkly how unfit for purpose are the foundations on which social policy, including housing, is built. In the initial response to the virus, people who were homeless and who often lived on city streets disappeared from public view. Governments, realising how susceptible homeless people would be to infection, found them accommodation in hotels. That was commendable. This support, however, is intended to last only to the beginning of economic recovery.

Simultaneously, many of the financial supports and the protection from bankruptcy and eviction that were also introduced in response to the virus are also  scheduled to cease. If and when this happens a very large number of the people who have lost employment will be unable to pay rent or mortgages, and so risk homelessness. This will in turn create ideal conditions for the virus to spread.

A successful response to COVID-19 and to the consequent crises in all areas of public policy depends on giving priority to the good of the whole community and especially to the most vulnerable people in it. That requires governments showing leadership in commending these attitudes and implementing them in policy. For many years they have not done this, and so have exacerbated the threat posed by the virus. They have withdrawn from their responsibility to ensure that all members of society, especially the most vulnerable, are decently housed. They have allowed responsibility for housing, aged care and other social goods to be left to private enterprise, with the result that they have become a source of self-aggrandisement by the already wealthy.  Underlying this neglect is the self-serving belief that society is made up of competitive individuals, and that subsidising the most successful will create a prosperity which will then spread to the whole society. People who could not compete, were regarded as undeserving to share the fruits of prosperity.

Homelessness shows how hollow was this promise of shared prosperity. The necessity of meeting the needs of people who are homeless and otherwise disadvantaged in other ways as a condition of responding effectively to COVID-19 reveals the naivety and recklessness of the policies that have produced homelessness. The way forward must be built on respect. And respect begins with a home.