Rev Brian Anderson: A secure home is the right of all
Christians have a duty to be at the forefront of care and compassion for the homeless, says the Rev Brian Anderson of the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, which has produced new housing insecurity and homelessness resources
THE rising levels of homelessness across the island of Ireland can feel like an insurmountable problem, but this situation is not inevitable.
It is the result of policy choices and decisions that can be changed. However, if we are to develop sufficient political will to address the root causes of this problem, particularly in relation to social housing, then we need to change attitudes and behaviours.
The Irish Inter-Church Meeting has developed a resource to equip local congregations and inter-church groups to approach these issues through bible study.
For Christians, Scripture shapes and informs our approach to social problems, but sometimes we can have blindspots and need to challenge ourselves about the lens through which we read the Bible.
Those of us who come to the Bible from relative social, economic and racial privilege - in my own case that of a white male, middle-class and living in a relatively wealthy Western society - must learn to read biblical stories through the eyes of the oppressed.
"Turn it. Turn it," the Rabbi would tell his student when comparing scripture to an ancient gemstone - by turning it, spending time with it, we can uncover the beauty and meaning of holy text.
Central to the beauty and power of the Bible story today is the uncompromising commitment of God to the poor and oppressed.
While we undoubtedly understand this on an academic level, the indifference of our society as a whole to the plight of those who are homeless indicates that not enough of us have taken it to heart.
When you speak to those who are experiencing homelessness, or those working in the charities that journey alongside them, they will tell you that the mental health consequences of homelessness, the shame and stigma that go with it are as challenging, if not more so, than the physical discomfort of inadequate shelter not having a place to call home.
When travelling recently I spoke to a pastor in another city where there is a homelessness crisis.
He shocked me by saying that those who are homeless in that city "don't have it too bad" as the weather is warm, numerous churches provide food at least four days a week, and with that they also give clothes and shoes.
Special worship services are run for those who are homeless. Undoubtedly the commitment of the volunteers in those charitable initiatives was outstanding but the pastor's attitude, to my mind, illustrated the kind of blindspot alluded to above.
It is very easy for Christians to content ourselves with doing things for people (such as those who are homeless) while living in a sort of protective bubble that prevents us from truly journeying alongside them, really seeing and understanding.
However, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is God's example of being with us, and one we should strive to follow.
When it comes to our current problems with housing and homelessness it can be tempting to protect ourselves from the frightening reality that this could happen to anyone.
For Christians, Scripture shapes and informs our approach to social problems, but sometimes we can have blindspots and need to challenge ourselves about the lens through which we read the Bible
We may sympathise with those who are homeless, while thinking "but that could never happen to me because I have a good education, a great job, my family, lots of friends..."
The theme for our bible study resource is 'In six months a lot can change'.
We spoke to people experiencing homelessness, both now and in the past, to include their voices in our reflections.
It is truly shocking how quickly people's circumstances can change through job loss, an increase in their rent or mortgage, relationship breakdown, ill health, violence and abuse. Frequently it is a combination of two or more of these things happening at once.
And yet, too often, our default position is to regard those experiencing homelessness as 'problem people' rather than people who have had problems.
This focus on the individual can blind us to the need to address the systemic problems that leave people vulnerable to, or trapped in homelessness, and examine where we may be complicit in those systems.
For example, are we supportive of social housing development in our local area?
In addition to the thousands of people experiencing homelessness across the island of Ireland, many thousands more are living with inadequate housing or housing insecurity due to rent or mortgage arrears.
The stigma attached to homelessness can prevent people seeking help until the situation becomes an emergency, because they are afraid of how people will react.
Some contributors to our study described how they had disappeared from their friends' lives without any explanation because they couldn't face their reaction.
One interviewee described the pain in this stark and poignant way: "I'd love to be able to erase my memory and get a new identity and start all over again... that's the way it makes me feel sometimes."
As followers of Christ, who chose to live on the margins, journeying alongside the outcasts of the society of his day, our churches should be places of welcome, care and compassion for those experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness.
That requires us to really see the people affected, not just their need.
We are also called to recognise that their right to a secure home is just as important as our own and to challenge the injustice that is the root cause of their suffering.
The Rev Brian Anderson is president of the Irish Council of Churches and a former president of the Methodist Church in Ireland. The ICC includes Protestant, Orthodox, Reformed and Independent Churches among its members. Through the Irish Inter-Church Meeting, it works with the Catholic Church.
The Inter-Church Committee has developed resources, launched this week, to equip churches and Christians to engage with homelessness. More at irishchurches.org