Do not feed the homeless sign

Earlier this month Ed Miliband was castigated by the media for furtively handing a homeless person a coin – or was it a note? It seems the reporter was as unsure about what Miliband was doing, as he was himself.

Did he give because not to have done so would have made him look heartless? Or is he, just like the rest of us, embarrassed and just a little fearful when confroted by destitution? It seems that the priest and his two helpers, who were arrested in Florida earlier this month for feeding homeless people in the street, felt no such embarrassment or fear.

What makes for such a radically different approach to human need? Overcoming fear is the key to answering that question. Overcoming fear begins with unpacking just what it is that makes us afraid in any given social situation. When it comes to encounters with homeless people there is a mixture of things, some of them having to do with a personal sense of shame or guilt, others with the human being in front of us, how they actually ‘present’, and others with the locality or environment in which we meet them.

Locality is more complex than it might at first seem. If there are not too many other people around, especially if the area is moderately wealthy, the potential giver feels physically vulnerable and at odds with the general scene. This affects how he or she feels about the needy individual. Think what goes through your mind when you pass a homeless person on the pavement outside the restaurant you are about to enter, or one who is near a cash machine. Do you not experience a degree of resentment, either because they spoil the expensive look of the place, and so make you feel compromised, or because they make you feel guilty, and possibly afraid, about cashing £50? Giving to someone in such situations makes the giver feel exposed, not just in the giving, but in the difference which exists between his or her life situation and that of the person receiving.

Life situations are not dictated by merit, or confined to social background. They are just life. Being homeless can happen to anyone. According to a recent report issued by Shelter, homelessness can be caused by personal circumstances combined with a build up of negative factors which are the direct result of the socio-economic climate in which we live. Homelessness can take years to come about and irrespective of details it is always dehumanising. There is ultimately no difference, from a human point of view, between someone who depends on the hospitality of friends or relatives (long or short term), a sofa surfer, or the man or woman sleeping rough.

The one thing that a homeless person needs, as much, if not more, than money, is to be treated as a fellow human being. Serving well prepared food to someone affirms their humanity. It doesn’t just feed them. Homeless people seldom experience the touch of another person’s hand, or eye contact, or a genuine enquiry as to how they got to be where they are. They are just a homeless person, not someone we would make a point of visiting on a regular basis because we enjoy their company. We see them as different, not human in the same way as we are.

It is difficult to connect with a person when one is conscious of difference. Different means strange, and the word ‘stranger’ makes that person threatening to others. It is not that they are physically threatening, but that their situation and sometimes their personalities are difficult to cope with, whatever the extent of our ‘people skills’. This is because something more than skill is required. What is required is real conversation, the product of a moment’s vulnerability in which we connect with their vulnerability, with all the hurts and mistakes which brought them to where they are. Getting into real conversation with strangers makes real demands not only on our time, but on our humanity.

In Florida this month we saw a fearful reaction to homelessness take place on a corporate scale, backed up by law enforcement authorities. Here, it was not the givers of food who were afraid, but the wealthy local inhabitants whose political system allows for a law to be passed which prohibits feeding homeless people within 500 feet of residential property. The law has been instated as a ‘public health and safety measure’ and in order to ‘curb the homeless population’. Such a policy does not sit well with the heavily Christianised Republican politics of that state. Or does it?

Perhaps the Miliband incident and the arrest of the priest in Fort Lauderdale call for a review of our thinking with regard to the integrity of religious faith and how that faith interfaces with politics and the media. All three are closely related because all three play a part in shaping the way we make decisions concerning our relationships with those who are ‘strange’ to us.

All three of the Abrahamic faiths, and a number of other world religions, teach us that we need the stranger because it is the stranger who teaches us how to address fear with forgiveness and trust. The stranger teaches us, with incredible patience and fortitude, to forgive our false selves and to begin to have faith in our humanity.