1-7 August is National Homelessness Week
Once, to have a home was seen as a right. Now it is seen as a privilege. The price of houses has risen enormously. Renting has also become more expensive. In rural areas, to which many people have moved during the COVID epidemic, local people are often priced out of the housing market. More people are forced to sleep in their cars and on the streets. At the same time, however, the houses left unoccupied are sufficient to provide accommodation for all who lack it.
The reasons why it is so hard to find a place in which to live are many. They include a change in attitude towards buying houses from looking at housing as shelter to seeing it as an investment to increase wealth. This encourages people to take out heavy loans to buy houses, which in turn raises prices. In the meantime, governments that once took responsibility for housing people with little or no income have stopped building new houses or have sold existing stock. When immigration resumes, we can expect even greater pressure on shelter and on rental prices.
It is easy to treat this situation as inevitable, particularly if we own our own houses. For that reason, it is important to reflect on why housing is important and to imagine what we lose of ourselves when we have no place in which to live. In Homelessness Week, many events help us to do this. The Vinnies Sleepouts in which many people prominent in public life listen to homeless people tell their stories and then sleep on the floor themselves have touched the imagination of those who take part. The sight of people sleeping on the city streets on a cold winter night has also evoked empathy and generosity.
These short and voluntary experiences of homelessness, however, show only part of what it means to have nowhere to live. To be homeless cuts connections. If you have no fixed address you will miss mail, will find it hard to have things delivered, to have friends and family visit you, and to access government services. You will move often from place to place, your children will change schools, miss friends and experience only passing relationships. Even connections with the internet will become more difficult and expensive. With no kitchen, food will be expensive; with no laundry or bathroom, it will be hard to maintain hygiene and clean clothing.
Many of the people, disadvantaged in many ways, whom we accompany at Jesuit Social Services see secure housing as their major need. Insecurity contributes to mental illness and withdrawal from society.
That is why in Catholic Social Teaching, stable shelter is seen as a human right. In modern society, stable accommodation is necessary if we are to live fully as human beings with our dignity respected. Without it we shrink as persons, we lose touch with friends and family, and the connections with society that are central to our lives become precarious.
In our highly developed society, we should demand of our governments that they take responsibility for shaping an economy that will allow people to buy or rent housing, and provide social housing for those who cannot afford it.
To find out more about Homelessness Week, visit homelessnessaustralia.org.au
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.