I recognise in myself that i do not treat the people i see sleeping on the street equally: sometimes i ignore them, sometimes i try to give a kind word, sometimes i buy them a cup of tea (which is probably more useful than a kind word). Very occasionally, i stop to chat. My reasons are fairly typical i suspect: sometimes i’m no feeling chatty, often i’m travelling from A to B, often i am not sure i want to talk to someone who looks like they are battling issues, sometimes i am just careless. I suspect i talk the most to people who smile, who look reasonably ‘together’. If i’m honest, i talk to the people who i see as people, and ignore those who i see as simply shadows of a person.
Possibly i am thinking about it too much, but homelessness is a judgement on society: if we wish to be a civilised society, then we must act with civility. If we just do so to those people who we like, who look like us, who are successful, then we are not a society. At best, we are a gang. In a country like the UK, there is no reason for anyone to sleep on the street, unless they want to, or feel they have no options: the second factor being the hardest to address.
Doubtless for some people, it’s a choice, but for many, it’s not: it’s a situation imposed, not chosen.
As a society, we have an uneasy relationship with difference: we describe ourselves as fair, but what we mean is ‘fair if you conform’, a challenge seen by traveller communities for decades. In principle, you can live your life as you wish, but within a framework of residency and property ownership that dominates. Travellers are anathema to property and jurisdictional systems. We are well beyond the land of the commons today.
We could easily pick up the people who fall out of the system: you, or i, could tell the ‘officers’ where to go, we could even go out ourselves, with food, with clothes, with the keys to vacant property. With hot water and a membership card, to rejoin society. And yet, typically, we don’t. Or at least i don’t. Because we conflate ‘homelessness’ with ‘worthlessness’, and unless you provoke a sympathy response, ‘valueless’.
This is the curse of society, sitting in plain sight: it’s often there for people, but not for people who live in the shadows, people who are shadows. Shaded from the light by the society they have left.
It is no surprise that we make value judgements on those who have nothing: after all, we make value judgements about every layer of society. The rich, the rulers, the teachers, the police, our neighbours, our friends. The progression of many of our more liberal democracies is one of accumulation: we acquire education, we acquire possessions, we acquire wealth. To lack in any one of these can dispossess, or disenfranchise you.
The question may more reasonably be asked, ‘should we put limits on society’: should we prevent people falling off the bottom rung, much as we start to consider if we should impose limitations at the top. Is it ‘right’ that one person can control more wealth than a country, especially when others, biologically identical, fellow humans, have nothing?
It’s fine to reason that hard work brings success, and success reaps rewards, but we do not start from the same starting line, and even if we did, we may still decide that these is such a thing as ‘too little’. There is a cost of society, and perhaps that cost is that we catch those people who have nothing left to lose. Perhaps to catch them, we first have to remember that they are people too.