CEOs in Sleeping Bags - Comment
23 June 2010 at 2:06 pm
Participants in the 2010 CEO Sleepout (Image source: facebook/Vinnies-CEO-Sleepout)
The prevention of homelessness should be seen as a matter of justice says Dr John Falzon the Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council who took part in the recent CEO Sleepout. Here's his take on the event (originally published in Eureka Street):
The founder of the St Vincent de Paul Society, 19th century French activist academic, Frederic Ozanam, wrote: 'Charity is the Samaritan who pours oil on the wounds of the traveller who has been attacked. It is the role of justice to prevent the attack.'
We would be poorer as a nation without the outpouring of human kindness through charities. But the prevention of homelessness should be seen as a matter of justice, and for that charity is no substitute.
More than 100,000 people are homeless on any given night. Almost half are under 25. Every day, half the people who request immediate accommodation from homelessness services are turned away. Two in every three children who need support are turned away. Contrary to many of the persistent myths about homelessness in Australia, women and children are the biggest users of specialist homelessness services.
On 17 June CEOs and community leaders across the nation participated in the first St Vincent de Paul Society CEO Sleepout. They slept out in order to raise funds for, and increase awareness of, homelessness in Australia.
I participated in the Sleepout in Canberra. For me, the most moving and useful element was the presentation given by a couple of people who had been experiencing homelessness. Two points emerged. One is that homelessness is a social problem, not primarily a personal one, because we continue as a society to condone or explain away the reality of violence against women.
The other is that homelessness is a profoundly political problem. The absence of political will is the fundamental obstacle to ending homelessness. A good place to begin would be to guarantee everyone the right to adequate housing. Since the private rental market is notoriously bad at this, governments must do what markets cannot.
If this sounds like a utopian fantasy, it is far more fanciful to imagine that we are saving money by leaving things the way they are. The economic and social costs of homelessness crisis are enormous.
In 2006 journalist Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker about Million Dollar Murray, a man who had experienced chronic homelessness, with all the concomitant health problems. When Murray died it was estimated that the costs to the state of maintaining Murray in his condition of homelessness came out at US$1 million. Providing him with secure housing would have provided a base from which other problems could have been addressed. Secure, appropriate housing also happens to be good for your health!
This is not to say that homelessness is simply houselessness. But the provision of adequate housing is a good place to start. As Philip Mangano, former executive director of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness, said while visiting Australia last year: 'You do not manage a social wrong. You should be ending it.'
I was recently in Cuba delivering a paper on Social Inequality at the University of Havana. This poor nation has achieved what our rich nation has not: it has eliminated homelessness. Some of its housing needs a good lick of paint, or more, but no one is subjected to the indignity of being turned away. Through a network of guarantees of housing, healthcare and education Cuba has succeeded in making homelessness a relic of the past.
I am reminded of the beautiful line by the poet Tomas Borge: 'There will be no beggars left to haunt us …'
I am haunted by the woman who spoke at the Canberra Sleepout. She explained how, on the nights when she had nowhere to sleep but her car, she would tell her children that they were going on a camping adventure. She would tell them they were going to look for kangaroos or to watch planes take off. Anything to shield them from the fear she knew in her own heart.
I am also haunted by the man who spoke. He first experienced homelessness when he was 13 and has been in and out of institutions. When someone thanks God for public toilets because they're nice and warm to sleep in, you know we have a problem. He was made to feel it was his problem. We should admit that it is ours as well.
Some see a person experiencing homelessness and reflect that our system is not working. Others conclude, perhaps more astutely, that the system is working, and that inequality lies at its heart.
The 1975 Commission of Inquiry into Poverty prescribed a frighteningly simple antidote to the growth of poverty and inequality in Australia: 'If poverty is seen as a result of structural inequality within society, any serious attempt to eliminate poverty must seek to change those conditions which produce it.' One Poverty Inquiry later, we continue to live with the festering growth in inequality that lies at the heart of homelessness and exclusion.
As a nation, we need to take responsibility for making sure that not only is no one turned away from a homelessness service but also that no one is turned away from access to adequate housing, healthcare, education, support and employment opportunities.
We have to be realistic. But being realistic does not mean accepting a costly and unjust status quo. It means imagining a different kind of Australia. Lilla Watson and a group of Aboriginal activists in Brisbane in the '70s put it eloquently: 'If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.'
Dr John Falzon is Chief Executive Officer of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board.