Podium: Family breakdown and homelessness

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Basil Hume

From a lecture given

by the Archbishop of Westminster to a conference organised

by Shelter in London

IN THE UK every 24 hours 1,400 people are accepted as homeless by local authorities. Official statistics show that in 1996 just under 123,000 households were so accepted. These figures are shocking.

One very obvious and simple cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable, decent accommodation. I understand experts estimate that up to 100,000 additional homes are needed every year to meet housing needs, and many housing organisations have also stressed the need to integrate housing and planning policies and ensure that more affordable homes are built in mixed tenure communities.

There are many other social changes, of course, influencing the extent of homelessness. There are many more households. More people are choosing to live alone. People are living longer.

There is also another factor we cannot ignore: family breakdown. Increased family stress is itself often a consequence of financial and housing problems, and therefore family life and the quality of children's lives, especially, can be transformed if families have a decent home. But the causal connection can work the other way. The fact of family breakdown itself can trigger homelessness, as families split up, finances are put into jeopardy and lives are thrown into disarray.

Family breakdown is a highly complex problem, admitting of no easy policy answer. But some things can be done to help. I have no doubt, for instance, that an urgent priority is to take a hard look at two drivers of family stress, which are unsocial or excessive working hours, and a lack of effective support for parents at home with small children. It may be that the attention now being given by government to the need to support families in our society could, if sustained and successful, have an impact in reducing homelessness.

We have in our society now, in common with other developed countries in Europe, a striking consensus across the mainstream political parties on a range of issues that were once fiercely contested, such as the role of the state, the legitimate place of the free market, and the importance of democratic accountability. Old ideological battles fail to stir us. Of course, that is not to say that there are not many major political issues at stake today. But I wonder whether we are now becoming more aware that what makes for a truly good society in the end is not just better policies, but better people. And that is a much tougher challenge to face.

It is a challenge to each of us, because the person we have most influence over is ourselves. Yet, I believe, here is at once both the key problem and the great opportunity for our society. We need to ask: What is it we ourselves want? What makes life truly worth living? Do we have a vision of a better future for our society? Or do we instead say to ourselves "Why should I care about other people? Why not think only of myself and my needs?" Let me quote from an English author, Christopher Dawson, writing in 1933 as the Nazi threat was taking shape in Germany: "What our civilisation lacks is not power and wealth and knowledge, but spiritual vitality, and unless it is possible to secure that, nothing can save us from the fate that overtook the civilisations of classical antiquity that were powerful and brilliant in their day."

Spiritual vitality is what we need, and it is not an optional extra. I have never believed that morality in the end can be self-sustaining. I accept, of course, that that there are many people who may not describe themselves as "spiritual", but who none the less believe passionately in justice for all, who are inspired by a deep commitment to the good of others, and who live lives of generosity and selflessness.

But what marks out the human is our capacity for rational thought, creative imagination, artistic sensibility and free choice. All this transcends the physical and the material; it can be explained only by the presence of the spiritual. We find ourselves in search of that which will fulfil our aspirations to be happy, to love, and to admire. There is in every human being an instinct and a thirst for God, even if that instinct is not recognised or, worse, has been stifled.

The fruit of that instinct draws us to recognise that each person, simply as a fellow human being, has a transcendent and unique dignity. It is that instinct which impels us to seek the good of the other, and to recognise that human fulfilment and happiness are not in the end possible in isolation. It is that instinct which tells us insistently that we live in one world, peopled by one human family. And therefore all - especially the homeless - are our brothers and sisters.