Scandal of homelessness in an apparent land of plenty
EVEN Christians choose to forget some of the core messages of their Saviour’s day amidst the orgy of sybaritic consumerism Christmas brings every year. Yes, there’s kindness and goodness all around and peace and goodwill to all mankind. How many of us, though, during our Watchnight services ask what inference can be drawn from God causing the Christ-child to be born into an immigrant family in conditions of extreme poverty while fleeing injustice and political oppression? Last week a prince of the most powerful Church of them all deployed social media effectively to ask the same question.
John Keenan, the Catholic bishop of Paisley, approached his followers on Facebook on the feast of The Epiphany, Twelfth Night, which marks the end of the Christmas season. He made this request: “I’d be grateful if someone could break down for me the complex and multiple reasons behind the record numbers of homeless on our streets, especially over recent Christmases. I know it immediately has to do with housing stock but how do factors such as family breakdown, addiction and unemployment, etc feed into it?
“Today we end the Christmas season when we have been thinking about how wise men brought the wealth of their resources to help a homeless family of Joseph, Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago and still the problem remains. Can we not bring our wisdom and the wealth of our resources to the homeless souls in our times in a way that leads to some lasting solution? I’d appreciate some (non-partisan) suggestions to find out what can be done.”
Do we perceive a sense of bewilderment or even one of resignation here that even the Church in which the bishop serves does not have all the answers? Was this why he reached out to the wider community of men and women of all faiths and none, who are bound together not perhaps by ideas of spiritual salvation but by a desire simply to help those of their brothers and sisters in need? And who is to say anyway that this does not also bring its own salvation?
Bishop Keenan’s question occurred at the same time as it was being reported that homeless people in Glasgow had more than 500 overnight stays at a lifeline winter shelter while the rest of us were arranging our Christmas nights out. According to a report in The National: “The Glasgow Winter Night Shelter was accessed 510 times last month, with up to 40 people bedding down every night as others shopped for Christmas and attended end-of-year parties with friends and colleagues. Run by charities, the space opens on December 1 to help those sleeping rough escape the streets during the coldest months of the year.”
The problems that lead to homelessness can often be more complex than those that lead to poverty, but many of the factors indicating deprivation are also present when a person is officially registered as homeless. It comes down to this, though: when a society as affluent as ours chooses not to build enough homes for those among us who are stricken by mental health or by addiction issues or by rejection, we have ceased to become a society at all. Rather, we have become as totalitarian as those Soviet states we were once taught to revile; a gulag where mercy and compassion for our fellow human beings have been replaced by scorn and excoriation.
“It’s their own fault,” we are wont to say. “Them and their drinking; if we must house them just don’t put them anywhere near me.” And we choose to ignore the fact that all of those seeking a bed and some food at the Glasgow Winter Night Shelter at Christmastime are fathers and mothers; brothers and sisters; aunts and uncles; sons and daughters. They all belonged once to someone in caring, compassionate, egalitarian Scotland.
This rude little reminder of the extremes of human existence that continue to underpin our society occurred just as a think-tank called the Resolution Foundation was releasing figures on income inequality. It had fallen to its lowest level since 1986. This was one of several conclusions from the research that showed inequality in several other categories. No matter; all the usual suspects on the Right were soon jumping for joy and using this as proof that tough social policies were working. They were talking nonsense, of course.
In 2015 the Social Market Foundation found that the gap between the UK’s richest and poorest had widened significantly in the past decade as wealthy households paid off their debts and accumulated savings after the financial crash of 2008. It also found that the poorest families were far less financially secure than before the crash. These families had an average of less than a week’s pay set aside and were more often in the red.
Sanctions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions on poor and disabled people and the deliberately complicated nature of the benefit changes had left many of the families highlighted in the report perilously close to destitution.
When the Right’s media cheerleaders throw their hats in the air at every clutched straw indicating a vigorous economy they are really cheering the fact that the UK, one of the richest countries in the world, is also one of the most unequal. Well might they cheer, because they and their friends and their families are on the affluent side of social injustice. Their attitudes also mean that they will do their utmost to ensure that these ingrained patterns of inequality are never altered.
The national statistics for poverty in Scotland in 2015 revealed that more than 940,000 people lived in relative poverty after housing costs, a figure that had remained unchanged for two years. Almost 60 per cent of working age adults in poverty were living in working households, as were 66 per cent of children. Four months ago Oxfam found that the richest one per cent of the UK population owns more than 20 times the wealth of the poorest fifth, making this civilised and fair country of ours one of the most unequal in the developed world.
Yet while figures like this cause the Tories to cheer so long as they can extrapolate any thin and isolated tributary of plenty, the response of the parties of the Left does not engender great optimism. Labour in Scotland wants to save the Union this year while the SNP claims that Brexit will dominate everything.
They are all wrong. This year, like every other year, should be about providing a decent home for all of our citizens and an equal opportunity to shine for every one of our children. This year should be about ending privilege and unearned entitlement in our judiciary; in our universities; in our professions and in our sports funding for they all reinforce the attitudes that lead to indifference in the face of poverty. We can only hazard a guess at why the parties of the Left in Scotland have rarely lifted a finger to end them.
‘‘ We have become a gulag where compassion for our fellow human beings has been replaced by scorn and excoriation
BEDDING DOWN FOR THE NIGHT: The number of homeless people rose to record levels in Glasgow over the festive season. Picture: Nick Ponty