orange and yellow house. Newtown grafitti. flickr cc.

Tony French.

That’s the concluding line in the 2018-2019 Social Justice Statement of the Australian Catholic Bishops, titled A place to call home – making a home for everyone in our land.

Clearly, that is a sentiment with which we can readily agree. But there is less ready agreement in its implementation.

And this tension shows in the Statement. Two thirds of the document detail the alleged causes of what it calls ‘The Housing Crisis’, a third to what might be done to end ‘This Homelessness Tragedy.’

The imbalance is back-to-front. The Statement should predominantly be telling all of us, but particularly those of us who count ourselves as Christian, what we can do. Now.

We are well educated on the many causes of homelessness: poverty, unemployment, lack of affordable housing, poor physical or mental health, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling, family and relationship breakdown, domestic violence, physical and/or sexual abuse. That’s the Salvation Army’s list, and some of those causes are mentioned in the Social Justice Statement, but its preference overheated house prices (and high rents) as primary causes of homelessness.

Yet the Statement concedes that 67% of Australians own their houses, while the last Census shows 30% of us in rental accommodation, and, yes, rental accommodation is increasing at the expense of home ownership.

So, is there some difficulty with 97% of us being in regular accommodation, while we are being told there is a homelessness problem?

What is homelessness?

One problem might be with our loose definition of homelessness. It’s easy to conflate homelessness with ‘rooflessness’. Rough sleepers are the evident sign of real homelessness. Homelessness is defined to include anyone who does not own or lease a dwelling. People in boarding houses, hostels, refuges, motels, caravan parks (including the roving army of grey nomads) and couch surfers are technically homeless, albeit not roofless.

The Social Justice Statement calls this a ‘spectrum’ of homelessness. The result is to supercharge our alarm at the sheer number of homeless people (116,426 in 2016) while failing to provide a practical line between those ‘housed’ (even unsatisfactorily) and those actually ‘un-housed’.  It is the poorest on the margins who deserve our immediate attention and help.

We know the reasons people are rough sleeping, yet we seem incapable of providing a long-term solution to this very visible problem, or, for that matter, tackling the other obstacles to home ownership and renting.

One unstated reason may have something to do with the wind-back of the post-World War II welfare state. That extensive system of welfare owed its origins to the Christian notion of the Common Good which underpinned so much of the thinking for establishing a comprehensive cradle-to-grave welfare state.

Initiated by the same State, we now have a rollback of such State activities, with privatisation driven by free market enterprise, a market-driven economy ushering in the current era of neoliberal infatuation and consequent austerity for many.

The Statement alerts us to the consequences of this rollback, seen in high house and rental prices, but without referencing the motivating ideological drivers. Spelling out symptoms demands in addition diagnosis as well as suggesting cures.

Whose responsibility?

The reality forces us to ask, what can, or should, you and I be doing about Australia’s housing problem? Here, the Statement gains traction, arguing that individual, community, parish, and societal involvement is necessary, lest widening wealth inequality increases financial and society marginalisation of an increased number of people, leading to poverty and homelessness.

Unhelpfully, I think, the Statement says the ‘first call is on government’. It says it is government’s responsibility to raise minimal welfare payments, to provide increased social housing, and, as if lifted from Greens Party policy, to curb grubby speculation by removing negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions.

Only two problems arise here for the Statement. It is naïve these days to expect government to fix all our problems. That’s old-style welfare thinking, displaced these days by ‘smaller and less interventionist government’. Or, in these ‘cult of the individual’ times, look after yourself.

There is also no mention of the Christian response, called the Common Good. It liberates us from resulting laissez-faire capitalism. As the 2010 Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales said, ‘if anyone is left out and deprived of what is essential, then the common good has been betrayed’.

Subsidiarity, a key component of the Common Good, requires that solutions or remedies to social issues be made at the community or local level. Consider it a self-help approach, perhaps consistent with individualism.

The Church operates at such a community or social level in Australia. What can it do? The Social Justice Statement says Catholics can be proud of existing diocesan social services conducted by the Vinnies and religious orders. But that doesn’t absolve those of us who are not involved.

It is uplifting, then, to read in the Statement that, beyond the immediate and useful band-aid help such services provide, privately, houses have been made available for the homeless. And in Tasmania, 400 affordable homes have been provided. Impressively, too, there is now a Catholic Housing Alliance, making available unused or under-utilised church property.

All this is not to suggest that the Church should not continue advocating strongly to government to raise welfare benefits (well, at least not cut them), provide tax or other incentives to the market to build more houses for  public as well as private housing, as governments today are not minded to build sufficient public or low-cost housing.

And recall that government listens to Church advocacy, particularly if votes are involved. Just think of the Christian Electoral Lobby, which has been very effective in lobbying its ideas on behalf of its small conservative ‘evangelical’ constituency.

What churches & individuals can do

Lastly but importantly, what can I do? The housing Statement provides some suggestions from simply being hospitable to a financially struggling fellow parishioner to joining one of the social justice or service organisations such as CatholicCare or Vinnies.

For the bold, it suggests greeting rough sleepers, and – the challenge I pose – buying them a meal.

Parishioners collectively could undertake projects. In the countryside, there are many empty former farmhouses. Farmers, it seems, would prefer these to fall down, rather than have them tenanted. A parish could fix up these properties, guarantee the farmer the rent, and then rent the properties to, say, single older women who have been priced out of the urban rental property market.

And then, there are the estimated 300-500 rough sleepers in Melbourne, a manageable problem you’d think, given our 5 million population. Is it too much to suggest Churches ecumenically combine to tend these people in secure ‘pop up’ shelters or unused office buildings. Tending means more than providing a roof and sandwiches, but counselling services as well.

The Statement uses the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) as its motif for ‘making a home for everyone’. The mugged man on the roadside certainly needed help, and the Good Samaritan provided him with immediate medical aid and temporary accommodation. I am unsure the parable can be stretched to be an indictment on unaffordable housing. If anything, the parable suggests we and the Church need to act for the common benefit of humankind.

That means talk of the Common Good, or. as the Statement makes clear, the absence of some goods being held in common, such as housing. It is, of course, something else to turn a house into a home.

It is the Christian task to encourage goods to be ‘in common’, in other words to provide direction as to how to balance the goods for one’s self interest with adequate goods for those in my community. That is the justice of the Common Good.

The Bishops’ Statement is not an encyclical, but a discussion paper. I hope it is read and commented on in parishes in all denominations, and receives the publicity it deserves across the community. It is a timely Statement. It will have succeeded, if it motivates us to action.

Tony French is a Melbourne lawyer and member of the Board of Social Policy Connections. He is a regular contributor to Social Policy Connections’ newsletter.






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