“But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (Mark 14:6-7)
Jesus reminds us of two principles in tension: Christians must never neglect the suffering of people in this age, but the particular service we can offer the world depends on our connection to the eternal – to the Divine.
If we needed a reminder of the importance of Christian witness for decency in governmental policy and commercial behaviour, we are getting it now. Women, children and men are put out of their homes by “renoviction” or other means of depriving people of shelter, in favour of those who can pay more. Those who cannot afford increasing rents end up insecurely housed, sharing with friends or in cramped congregate shelters. An increasing number of men and women are sleeping rough or living in tents in cities across the world. To Christians, and indeed all People of the Book, these people we displace with the bland impersonal brutality of the neo-liberal economy are made in the image and likeness of God, of infinitely more value than the numeric formulations we dignify with words like “wealth” and “prosperity.”
“A hangout for the bottom 1 per cent” (Google review of All Saints Church-Community Centre)
In a society obsessed with possession, people in deep poverty and without shelter present an unwelcome reminder of the cruelty of our society and the inefficiency of our institutions. To business proprietors, unhoused people in deep poverty are an unwelcome disturbance to their customers. Many of us have good reason to fear poverty and are all too easily taught to fear the poor. The cruelties and absurdities of our policies lead, among other things, to encampments, which burden public space and bring unhoused people into conflict with other community members.
In response, an increasing number of commentators propose to sweep those whom our society has displaced out of sight. They begin by blaming the housing crisis on illicit drugs, or on the untreated mental illness they ascribe to those lost on our streets. From there, they argue the solution lies with a return to institutionalization. The call to bring back insane asylums is accompanied by the claim that we unwisely abandoned them at the behest of “romantic” arguments about freedom, exemplified by novels such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
These arguments are wrong on nearly every point. The movement leading to the closing of insane asylums was driven not by Ken Kesey’s supposed romantic notions but by awareness of the abuses built into a system designed to hide people suffering from mental illness. Anyone unclear about the real nature of institutions designed to make the poor and the powerless conform or disappear need only consider the results of scans by ground-penetrating radar, from the Tuam care home in Ireland to Canada’s Residential Schools.
The solution to homelessness is simple: to build and provide housing. Even in economic terms, institutionalization fails. Estimates are imperfect, but confining people almost always costs more than housing them. The parliamentary budget office has estimated the construction cost per inmate of a secure institution at $400,000. The maximum estimated construction cost for an apartment is $240,000. That difference, $160,000 for each homeless person, is far too much money to waste on pointless cruelty.
…The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor. (Basil the Great)
No psychiatric problem or addiction is improved by casting the sufferer adrift on the streets. Providing housing always reduces stress, makes access to medication easier and facilitates regular care. This assumes care will be available; in many cases, it is not. Mental health care and support services are severely underfunded in many places, and Ontario is not an exception. Infamously, politicians who closed institutions for the mentally ill promised outpatient services they never provided. Many people with mental illness need counselling, support and access to medications; in some cases, this means reminding people of the benefits of therapy, and help to schedule their medications. These needs can be met by a caring community, through group homes or even adult fostering arrangements. People with mental illness, even quite severe conditions, respond to the love and support of a family, chosen family or community. Loving care is certainly better than spending vast sums on walls and locks, only to sweep the image of God out of sight.