Scan­dal of home­less­ness in an ap­par­ent land of plenty

The Herald - - OPINION -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.