PETER DAY. Homelessness v houselessness

We need to change the way we do charity and welfare; we’re out of kilter: lots of giving and receiving of things, but too little giving of ourselves – we just don’t have the time. It hardly needs saying, “People need people.”  

Understandably, there has been quite a bit of reaction to the images of the homeless making camp outside Flinders Station in Melbourne.

Many question ‘How can this be so in such a prosperous society’; the inference being that money will solve the problem. Yet, it is this very prosperity that contributes to neglect and indifference and homelessness.

After all, a prosperous society relies on its citizens being money-centred, self-centred, competitive, productive, and very busy. One of the consequences of this pressured backdrop is a tired and distracted society with little energy left-over to look after those who may hinder our progress, or retard our competitiveness, or beckon us to slow down.

The vast majority of people who ‘make’ the street their home have been traumatised by some form of abuse in the family home. Thus, mental illness and substance abuse prevail.

There are thousands of ‘Flinders Station’ people out there, too many of who remain unknown and cut off from the mainstream. And beneath the anonymity and isolation – beneath the rags, the grime, the odd behaviour, the loneliness, and the illness – lies a name, a story, a human being crying out: Am I somebody? Do I have a place?

These questions are underpinned by what I call relational poverty: an entrenched isolation in which there is minimal and, oftentimes, no meaningful human contact. Among people with chronic mental ill health, for instance, this is an all too pervasive reality; one that leaves those who are very sick fending for themselves outside train stations, shop fronts, parks, refuges, gaols and public housing throughout our nation.

Much of our collective approach to relieving poverty and homelessness – be it governments, NGOs, or churches – is underpinned by impersonal charity: “I give, you receive, and never the twain shall meet.” Such charity may be useful in combating material poverty, but it has little impact on addressing relational poverty. More often than not, our impersonal charity helps people survive and exist only. Lives are not transformed.

Further, in relation to accommodation, while we, as a nation, are very good at addressing ‘houselessness’ – the physical needs of vulnerable people; we are very poor at addressing homelessness – the relational, spiritual, and emotional needs of vulnerable people.

It needs to be emphasised, homelessness is much more than just the absence of bricks and walls and things. Loneliness is not cured by a one bedroom unit. Isolation is not relieved by donations of food and clothing.

As long as we continue to treat homelessness as chiefly a physical and material problem, we will continue to nurture the monster that is revolving-door welfare: people bouncing in an out of refuges, public housing, and the streets. Within this model of care, the complex issues that underlie peoples’ crises are never properly addressed, so nothing changes. We just re-cycle homelessness.

And while it is generally accepted that awareness around mental health is at an all-time high, we mustn’t be fooled into thinking that awareness leads to action. The reality on the ground is very dire.

Indeed, the mental health landscape is in severe drought. It is a system bereft of love and humanity; one in which people are objectified as an illness to be treated, rather than a human being with an illness.

Further, its default position is crisis care only – and that’s often too late.

One might compare what is going on in the mental health system to a small life-raft patrolling stormy seas. When it comes across a drowning man it drags him aboard, revives him, gives him a cuppa, a warm blanket and a rest; then, once revived and rested, the man is thrown back into the ocean to make way for someone else who is drowning.

We need to change the way we do charity and welfare; we’re out of kilter: lots of giving and receiving of things, but too little giving of ourselves – we just don’t have the time. It hardly needs saying, “People need people.” 

Peter Day is a Catholic priest and the founder – and a live-in caretaker – of HOME in Queanbeyan: a community-based initiative that provides supported accommodation for 19 men and women with chronic mental illness who cannot live independently and are at risk of being homeless.

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John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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