By Amanda Merrett
*Download the full Homelessness Week Resource Pack to find out how your faith community can respond to homelessness here.
We have to stop blaming the homeless for their homelessness.
Earlier this year, as ‘Summer Carnival Youth Camp’ was coming to an end, I was chatting with a young girl who had attended the camp for the first time. I asked her what her favourite part of camp was and she responded with, ‘Probably that I got my own bed. At home I sleep in a tent in the back yard’.
According to Homelessness Australia, ‘on any given night in Australia, 1 in 200 people are homeless’. Over a quarter are eighteen years and younger. Yet, the stereotypical image of homelessness is that of an older man sleeping in the street.
Earlier this year Melbourne City was the centre of a public debate regarding rough sleepers. Some people experiencing homelessness had made communal spaces, such as Flinders Street Station, their place of refuge. Members of the public made known their disgust and fear of the rough sleepers, and ugliness emerged from a city that is known for its diversity and acceptance. The media’s coverage of the story stigmatised people and reinforced the negative stereotypes of homelessness.
Research into public perceptions of homelessness indicates that our understanding is lacking. People assume that ‘lack of effort’ or ‘poor decision making’ is to blame for people’s homelessness. Comments like “they should just get a job”, or “the homeless are lazy” are not only unhelpful, but uninformed. Homelessness is a complex social concern. People do not end up homeless suddenly, and problems associated with homelessness are often out of their control. For example, did you know that family and domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness?
When we blame the homeless for their homelessness, it removes the collective responsibility of caring for those who are marginalised, and places that responsibility back on people who are trapped in a cycle of broken systems and powerlessness. Biblical references such as Psalm 82 and Isaiah 1 demonstrate that God’s people are called to seek justice for those on the fringes of society; we are required to seek justice for people experiencing homelessness.
God’s people are called to seek justice - that is - we are asked to participate in ushering in God’s Kingdom by seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humble with God. Justice recognises that power and opportunity are not always on the side of those who need them most, and seeks to change that. God asks us to participate in this process. Justice requires that Christians respond with compassion, seeking to understand the systemic issues that reinforce peoples’ experiences of injustice and oppression. And who are we to judge from our television screens and social media feeds?
Why was the young girl sleeping in a tent? Was it because her family was lazy? Were they experiencing family violence? Or were they one of the thousands of families pushed out of the rental market because of unaffordable housing? Justice requires that we respond to need in an informed way, which often means educating ourselves and critiquing the views and attitudes we hold. Homelessness is one of the leading social issues in Australia, and the church has a significant role to play with a response of justice. First, we have to stop blaming the homeless for their homelessness.