Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Thoughts on a Refuge and Homelessness

"Before his conversion, the lepers had always inspired him with disgust. Even the sight of one in the distance filled him with horror and dread. He would never give them alms directly, but always through an intermediary. A hospital especially devoted to their care stood on the plain in the vicinity of Assisi, and whenever he went in this direction on business or for pleasure, to escape the nauseating odor.he hurried past with averted and closed nostrils" (Some Loves of the Seraphic Saint, by Fr. Augustine)

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
Gk Chesterton, The House of Christmas

"Imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan: 'Along came an economist, but he, having read Hayek, knew that to help the man in the ditch was only a short-term solution that would encourage a culture of dependency, so he passed by on the other side."(Bishop N.T Wright)

The media have been reporting on a proposed refuge in St Aubin for homeless men:

Plans to build a men's refuge in St Aubin have come up against fierce opposition at a public meeting on Thursday night. Colin Taylor from the Christian charity Caring Hands wants to turn the former Sabots D'or guesthouse into a shelter for men who have suffered some trauma in their lives and need a place to stay. But locals are concerned it will become a halfway house for prisoners, drug-users and alcoholics - and since it is near two pubs - they do not think it is the right place. To allay those fears Colin Taylor, who came up with the idea for Sanctuary House, took questions from the public at a meeting at St Brelade Parish Hall on Thursday night. Mr Taylor was supported by the Rector of St Brelade, Reverend Mark Bond and St Brelade Deputies Sean Power and Montfort Tadier. They explained the shelter was not for people with drug and alcohol issues and that potential tenants would be screened by various agencies, but they did not say what criteria would be used. (1)

It is notable that according to one news story, the St Aubin's residents' association said such a refuge was better placed in St Helier. One of the key features of a refuge or shelter's placement is that all over the world, there is usually a move to site them away from "better areas", and in what are, in fact, the worst possible areas. Writing on "New York's New Ghettos", in 1991, Camilo Jose Vergara noted that:

"Those looking for a place to put a shelter search for bad communities where nobody is going to ask questions:' explains Pancho Rodriguez, a building superintendent in the South Bronx. In 1983, when New York owned nearly 50,000 apartments in the most destitute and violent areas of the city, the city government decided to reserve units that became vacant for homeless families then living in shelters or hotels. Three years later it located the majority of its shelters in these communities as well.(2)

Jersey is a much smaller community than New York, but the same kind of thinking can be seen here. The argument that St Helier is a "better place" for a refuge means essentially that if it is placed among the worst areas of St Helier, where there are derelict flats and the poorer bedsit dwellers, no one is going to raise much objection. But are those really the best surroundings for helping people back on their feet again? In fact, of course, the most conducive place for anyone traumatized would be not an urban surroundings, but the seaside.

It was not surprising that the Victorians turned to the fresh sea air for recuperative powers, after the dark, somber, cities with row after row of sooty red brick houses; in fact, Karl Marx was one of the most notable visitors to Jersey for precisely the beneficial effects on health. Even today, Jersey Link of Chernobyl Child Life Line sees the benefits of this - ""We are thrilled to introduce the children to what, for most of them, is their first taste of the sea. We hope it will stimulate and leave them in better health along". Rebuilding a life after trauma is not just a matter of providing a refuge; the surroundings can be just as important towards helping recovery.

But there is a deeper agenda at work here - the fear of those people who do not fit within the orderly structures of society. This kind of thinking can be seen with Romany people whose nomadic lifestyle is seen as an affront to the settled dweller, so much that they are the subject of misinformed stereotypes, simply because they don't fit into the neat boxes. Very much the same kind of thinking applies to those who, for no fault of their own, are homeless, cast upon their own resources:

To be homeless is to have suffered a fundamental rupture in the ties that bind. It signifies the breach of that intimate contract that regulates relations between private lives and the public worlds of work, consumption, political participation, and general social intercourse. The alleged offense of the homeless poor (aside from the exhibit forced upon eyes that would prefer not to see) is their "failure" to belong. The "dissolution of bonds without the formation of new ones," and the host of uncertainties about an individual's trustworthiness this gives rise to, explains (in the sociological account) the disreputable status accorded homeless persons (3)

The homeless have become the modern lepers in society, the outcasts whom no one wants to be close to, and no one wants to touch. There is a fear of contagion, that they will somehow infect and degrade the society around them, and that St Aubin would be better off without these disgusting creatures, who should be housed, because of course that is the charitable thing to do, so long as it can be at arms length, because like St Francis before his conversion, people would prefer to give through an intermediary.

Cultures have various ways of stigmatizing waste products in powerfully negative ways. These practices extend not only to inanimate objects and animals, but to people as well. In illustration of "a general principle of social hierarchies that the weak are believed to endanger the strong," the idiom of waste may be used by those with power "to suggest that ill health and misfortune are caused by people they wish to keep at a distance." Waste pollutes; it defiles and corrupts. Press coverage in the 1960s and '70s lapsed frequently into the jargon of "derelicts," "degenerates," "defilement," or "scum." Simultaneously worthless and (it isn't always clear how or why) dangerous, the homeless poor were a menace to be eliminated or contained.(3)

We can also see how the media reporting can bias how the story is seen. The story in 103 FM, for instance, notes the opposition, but says that:

Organisers of the men's refuge planned for St Aubin are positive they can go ahead having changed some minds. More than 150 people turned up to last night's meeting of the village residents association to have their say (4)

103 also reports on the rumours associated with the story

A refuge for men is opening on St Aubin's High Street. Sanctuary House will be Jersey's first shelter for men who have been through a crisis and have nowhere else to go. Formally the Sable D'or Guest House, the refuge will accommodate up to ten men. Founder Colin Taylor says it will offer counselling and advice to men going through break-ups, breakdowns and other problems in their life. But he is already facing opposition, with rumours circulating that it is a home for drug-users and alcoholics. Mr Taylor says they are not qualified to be able to support people with those problems. (5)

The Channel Television coverage, however, is much more skeptical about who will have access to the refuge. It mentions how "locals are concerned it will become a halfway house for prisoners, drug-users and alcoholics - and since it is near two pubs - they do not think it is the right place." And while it noted that the shelter was not for drug users or alcoholics, they gave the impression that there was still a question mark about this, and almost invite people to object:

They explained the shelter was not for people with drug and alcohol issues and that potential tenants would be screened by various agencies, but they did not say what criteria would be used (6)

The plan already has approval from the Planning and Housing Departments. The only way residents can object is through their St Brelade politicians. Deputy Angela Jeune wants people with complaints to come to see her. (6)

The media are keen to report on the meeting to discuss the "controversial" plans, but they seem reluctant to engage with the issues directly, and look towards exactly how shelters work, and what kind of homeless men would get the support they needed there.

The problem is not that the media are "biased", but that their very standards of "objectivity" reinforce dominant definitions of social reality; not that the media impose an alien ideology or manipulate audiences, but that they are able to win the consent and participation of audiences. (7)

One example would be domestic violence, and I find it curious that no mention of that was made in any of the news reportage, even if it is well known that the Woman's refuge provides a safe haven for women who need to escape an abusive relationship. While it is true that the majority of cases of domestic violence involve men abusing women, it is not uncommon for a man to suffer physical or emotional abuse by his partner. When such men have nowhere else to go, a men's shelter may provide precisely the short-term support which they need to get back on their feet and leave the abusive relationship.

That is not to say that journalists cannot engage with the issue of homeless men seeking a shelter, but that is more likely to be the subject of a "special report", rather than part of the general news reporting on a shelter, where it is likely to be overlooked in favour of a dominant narrative of conflict, where the "concerned residents" or "angry residence" are given a voice, but the homeless who would benefit from such a shelter have to rely on others to speak out for them.

Homelessness is reported on from the perspective of journalists whose understanding of authoritative sources directs them away from the voices of diverse groups of homeless persons. Journalists are more likely to encounter homeless persons from a distance, both directly and through the eyes of `ordinary' people. Moreover, the lens they use to tie observation to explanation is shaped from afar, by those who are unlikely to ever have experienced situations where it was difficult to meet one's basic needs of food and shelter.(7)

Colin Taylor, speaking to the meeting about the men's refuge, said "What we can do - in an Christian environment - is feed them, look after them, offer counsel, and help them get into work. They're not criminals.". But it is surprisingly often people who consider themselves to be Christians, who support charitable giving, who would prefer any refuge out of sight, like the leper colony of old. And yet there is a very real element in Christianity which challenges this complacency, and calls for more direct participation. This is not in the name of some abstract idea of justice, but with what might be termed incarnational empathy - seeing Christ in the other, the outsider, the stranger - and the homeless:

In Matthew's Gospel, chapter 25, Jesus tells us "For I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink, I needed clothes and you clothed me. Then the people will answer Him, Lord when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink, or needed clothes and clothe you? Then Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did it for me.' Cannot Jesus also say, 'For I was homeless and you gave me shelter?'(St. Matthew Habitat for Humanity Ministry)

(1) http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline_jerseynews/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=493103
(2) "New York's New Ghettos.", Camilo Jose Vergara, The Nation, 1991
(3) "Reckoning with Homelessness", Kim Hopper, 2003
(4) http://www.channel103.com/news/index.php?storyid=8588
(5) http://www.channel103.com/news/index.php?storyid=8525
(6) http://www.channelonline.tv/channelonline_jerseynews/DisplayArticle.asp?ID=493103
(7) Images of Homelessness in Ottawa: Implications for Local Politics. Fran Klodawsky, Susan Farrell, Tim D'Aubry, The Canadian Geographer, 2002
(8) http://stmatts.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=174:chapter-ten-i-was-homeless-and-you-gave-me-shelter&catid=41:understanding-habitat-for-humanity&Itemid=14

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