By Pat Jones
Pat has undertaken doctoral research in Catholic charities serving people experiencing homelessness, in partnership with Caritas Social Action Network. She is a trustee of Depaul International.
One of the areas in which CSAN’s members are strongest is homelessness. This is not surprising, since the instinct to offer shelter and hospitality to those who do not have a home has always been part of Christian charity. But it is surprising that formal Catholic social teaching as expressed in papal encyclicals since Rerum Novarum in 1891 has so little to say about homelessness. Homelessness is a form of poverty but it’s also a specific situation that needs discussion, analysis and action, in each local context and globally. Mark McGreevy, CEO of Depaul International, pointed out recently that we’re more effective at counting bird populations globally than homeless populations. And until we make the challenge visible by knowing how many people are affected, and in what way, it’s hard to build a strategy. Recent official reports here in the UK from the Audit Commission and the Communities and Local Government Committee make a similar point about the need for better data.
The gap in CST – alongside the rich experience of practical Catholic response – led to a recent international conference held in Rome. Organised by Depaul International and its Institute of Global Homelessness, it brought together around 15 Catholic theologians with similar numbers of social policy leaders, practitioners and voices from experience. The aim was to explore how we can fill the gap and offer deeper theological support to the practical work that goes on around the world. Cardinal Turkson and other speakers from the Vatican also participated, bringing Pope Francis’ very personal commitment and example into the debate.
It was an experimental process, to see what happens when we ask what theology, and CST in particular, can give that will help those who work to end homelessness, whether they work through charities or through political structures. The risk here is that practitioners and policy-makers tend to want more effective strategies and action; whereas theologians offer questions, seek meanings and offer insights that can change the way we think and feel. Voices from experience have a crucial part to play, challenging both practitioners and policy-makers, and theologians. All parties in this conversation have much to learn from and give to each other.
It was a rich and fascinating conversation. Fr Danny Pilario from the Philippines described how a home, with a door you can lock, is a threshold right, a guarantee of other human rights, even the right to life. In Manila, the extra-judicial killings associated with President Duterte’s war on drugs threaten those with insecure housing far more than those who have doors they can lock. Fr Alejandro Crosthwaite pointed to a particularly vulnerable group, LGBT young people who became homeless, often because their families rejected them, including some Christian families. Sister Julie George from India described the abuse and violence suffered by women who live on the streets in India, ‘denied the very basic right to lead a dignified life’. There was serious engagement with the question of what strategies work, and whether street homelessness can be ended. Dame Louise Casey, former UK homelessness czar, described how rough sleeping in the UK was reduced from around 2,900 to 343 people during the 1990s – and pointed out that it has now risen again to around 4,000. She argued that when the political will exists, and there is radical collaboration on strategies, we can change the situation.
There are challenges here for theology, and especially for CST. One of the questions discussed was about whose responsibility it is to act when people are homeless. There were strong views. For some, state intervention is essential, and part of what governments should do – and the elephant in the room, the way in which economic ideologies determine housing policy, was recognised. For others, looking at developing countries in particular, smaller scale local self-determination was a more effective way for the homeless to improve their own situation. CST in this area is tricky to interpret – the statements on state-provided welfare in earlier documents are ambivalent, and recent documents have hardly addressed this complex area. Subsidiarity, voluntarism and taking responsibility are presented as important principles – and the responsibility of the state to ensure that there is a basic minimum social safety net is acknowledged. But how far should that safety net go? Welfare is being re-shaped almost every day in the UK, taking us further way from the social security it once implied. What could the voice of CST say about the complex dilemmas of welfare reform in countries such as the UK? And how do we interpret the CST principle that the purpose of the political community is to enable the achievement of the common good? Can the common good ever be achieved if there are people who are homeless? If we really want to end homelessness, we have to think through the economic implications for all of us, not just in relation to welfare, but also in relation to property. Charity alone, crucial as it is, will not be enough.
Unsurprisingly, the conference ended with more questions than answers. But it also ended with new commitments. There was a real sense of the importance of Catholic theologians getting involved with the practice of Catholic charities and voluntary organisations working in this field.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author. Image: Tabor House, Birmingham.