A homeless person sitting outside a bank

On Wednesday Sam Wells gave the Archbishop Blanch lecture at Liverpool Hope University. Sam is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square, London. He sees a lot of homeless people there.

He described a variety of ways people respond to homelessness, and classified responses into four types:
working for
working with
being for
being with.

His main point was that being with is the type of response which is most underrated. Most people judge what needs to be done from their own expectations of what homelessness must be like, rather than responding to the priorities of the homeless people themselves. In addition most people find it easier to see the homeless as a problem and do something for them, rather than engage personally with them. Nobody likes being treated as objects of other people’s charitable work without being consulted about what is really needed. For many homeless people isolation, lack of good relationships, is more of a problem than not having a roof over their heads. Much of the lecture was about the importance of spending time with people, valuing them in themselves, rather than solving problems. This, at least, is my attempt to summarise in a few sentences an intriguing and challenging lecture.

I haven’t spent much time talking to homeless people but it rings true: we tend to over-estimate the importance of material things and underestimate the importance of relationships. I am inclined to think what he described has much wider significance. The people who are most influential in any society are usually comparatively well off, and judge need from the perspective of their habitual lifestyles. For people brought up in car-owning families, not having a car feels like poverty. Similarly, when in the seventeenth century Thomas Hobbes judged the human condition before his day to be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, he was speaking from the perspective of someone who was so used to the luxuries of a privileged class that he thought life would be horrible without them, and jumped to the conclusion that other people would feel the same. He has plenty of successors today who think life must have been dreadful before flushing toilets and Microsoft Windows. In fact, Hobbes’ predecessors did not all long to have his seventeenth-century lifestyle, any more than he spent his time saying ‘Roll on the twenty-first century’.

The cult of economic growth, ever since Adam Smith’s day, has been led by people with more than average resources, who look around them at the less affluent and think the solution is for everybody to reach their lifestyle. It is an illusion. Of course we all wish we were a bit richer, so to some extent people poorer than ourselves want to be more like us; but we should not jump to the conclusion that that is the most important issue for them. Perhaps it is just our way of convincing ourselves that we need all the resources we have got.

I am aware that it is possible to use this argument as a way of defending an unequal status quo: it is okay for the poor to be poor, for the homeless to be homeless, because they are used to it. I do not think the argument works; given that most of the homeless would rather have a home, to say that they are used to it tells me not that I can keep my home but that I too could get used to being without it.

Sam’s point was that homeless people are not just homeless people: every one of them is a person with their own life story, their own ideas, their own wisdom to share, and should be valued in their own right. I would like to add to it the point that society tends to create categories of problem people. It is the corollary of keeping up with the Joneses.

When a society considers as normal a lifestyle which is beyond the reach of a minority, that minority comes to look like a problem. Whether it really is a problem, and how much of a problem it is, is a question to be answered by asking the people concerned.