Robert Frost, the poet who ‘took the road less travelled’ and questioned whether ‘good fences make good neighbours’ had one of the best definitions for home. “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in”.
For Frost home was the living space of a community that had an almost instinctual leaning towards acceptance and forgiveness, namely the family. Sadly this is far from a universal experience.
In Australia it is estimated that over 100,000 people don’t have a home. While this statistics refers to a lack of housing, Frost reminds us that homes and homelessness is an issue beyond mere bricks and mortar.
Indeed the reasons for homelessness, like the people themselves, are diverse. Kevin Rudd rightly called homelessness a ‘national obscenity’. However with Father Chris Reilly’s Youth of the Street recording a spike in the number of homelessness earlier this year, it is proving a difficult obscenity to fix.
We have just left winter, which is when homelessness is in the forefront of people’s consciousness. Mind you charities like St Vincent de Paul do a lot of work (the CEO Sleep out being my personal favourite) to keep it there.
However homelessness is a persistent problem. It challenges Australia not only because it reveals Australia to be, for all our egalitarian credentials, a land of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, but also because most politicians want to improve the situation (outwardly at least) but have been unable to.
Earlier in the year Tony Abbott remarked that no matter what the government does, some people will opt to be homeless.
This was part of a fairly nasty exchange about whether homeless people should be blamed for their predicament.
Perhaps unsurprisingly one of the most insightful voices in that public discussion came from John Falzon, CEO of St Vincent De Paul’s National Council. He noted that, ‘Everyone has a story. And they don't happen in limbo. They happen in the context of developing social and economic structures. Each person's story is a unique intersection of the personal and the political. Each intersection continues to change.’
We all make choices. We do so in a broader context. For example, maybe you have chosen to go overseas recently. Why? Because you love travel. That’s the personal. But maybe you only did so because flights were cheap. This was because carriers needed to remain competitive after the GFC, which was triggered by the bursting of the US housing bubble. That’s the political. Together they make what Falzon calls an ‘intersection’.
Homelessness is similar. Falzon attempted to move the debate beyond proportioning blame to being aware of these intersections, particular when ‘choices are constrained for those … systematically locked out of the nation's prosperity.’
If society was more aware of such intersections NSW state government a few months ago would not have scrapped four proposed ''bail houses,'' which would keep young offenders on bail out of detention centres as they awaited trial.
Incarceration can exacerbate homelessness, particularly with vulnerable or marginalised young people, by glossing over deep-seated needs with iron bars. The Labor MP Graham West resigned earlier in the year, in part, due to its rejection while Father Chris Reilly stepped down from the NSW Government's Homelessness Advisory Council in protest.
Whoever forms our government, I hope it’s a party committed to exploring such ‘intersections’. Homelessness, Indigenous disadvantage, the environment, asylum seekers, take your pick; none of these are a single issue but a complex web of intersections which need to be considered and addressed if we are to really ‘Move forward’, ‘Stand up for real action’, or whatever the winning slogan of the day is.
Evan Ellis is Social Justice Coordinator for the Diocese of Parramatta.
Disclaimer: CathBlog is an extension of CathNews story feedback. It is intended to promote discussion and debate among the subscribers to CathNews and the readers of the website. The opinions expressed in CathBlog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the members of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference or of Church Resources.