There was a story in the news today about a hotel which has cancelled a booking for 26 homeless people over Christmas. Organised by a local charity, it was an opportunity for people who live on the street to have a roof over their heads for a couple of nights. The irony is extreme: that you need a roof over your head before the hotel deems you worthy of a night in their hotel. The word ‘hotel’ itself, part of the hospitality industry, hostelry, home, surely sharing a common root, is about putting a roof over your head, about a welcome. So to be excluded because you are homeless is a damning indictment indeed.
There is something about extreme poverty that demotes you from society: when we strip away cleanliness and tidiness, when we remove property, we seem eradicate value too. To be homeless is to have no value. It is simply to be like litter on the street.
I sat in a meeting room in Edinburgh today, an old church, fretting about how cold i was, in my white shirt, and comfortable shoes, and tonight i will sleep easy in my luxury hotel, untroubled by the presence of anyone who fails to smell as fresh as i do.
The government recently announced a plan to ‘end homelessness’, with a budget attached, but the issue is not simply a financial one. It’s partly about our sense of society, and nature of our hospitality. Is ‘shelter’, the right to a home, the gift of those who are privileged, or a basic right.
A ‘civil society’ is not a badge we are allowed to pin on ourselves: it’s a value judgement that is imposed upon us. And the challenge we face is not purely financial. It’s a question about our humanity, and the ways we permit inequality to perpetuate.
We describe people who sleep rough as ‘homeless’, but many do have a ‘home’, albeit a doorway, or bridge. Often next to large, formal, or even empty, buildings. The exposure they feel is not natural: it’s imposed. People do not lack a home through lack of enclosed space: they lack a home through the unequal distribution of wealth, and lack of social judgement for exclusion.
There is nothing innate about society: it’s a construct that we can evolve at will, through common consensual delusion. We can dream the society that we deserve, and make it real. Society is generated through our actions and, when we stop to think, i hope we can find the time, grace, and goodwill, to put a roof over the head of anyone who needs it. Not just those we happen to already like.
The image above is a sketch from a photo by Pedro Oliveira.