Homelessness and Charity: Whose needs are we serving?

In September 2017, I-SPHERE hosted a visit from Cameron Parsell (University of Queensland). Here he reflects on the role of charity in responding to homelessness in advanced welfare state contexts.

The worth of charity as a response to poverty in contemporary society is either lauded or lamented. The former view is probably more common, at least that’s the idea we are presented with when the media or politicians celebrate charities for getting out there and doing practical things. Charitable organisations, together with the volunteers they often command, are put forward as optimistic signs of social capital and positively functioning communities. Conversely, others are uneasy about the function of charity as a response to poverty: charity is controversial because it is viewed as only necessary in light of the State’s failures. Moreover, the presence of charity lets the State off the hook for its responsibility to create the structural conditions to address poverty.

Dr Cameron Parsell, University of Queensland

I was fortunate this September to spend a week with friends and colleagues at the Institute for Social Policy, Housing and Equalities Research (I-SPHERE) to discuss, debate, and challenge our thinking about poverty and charity. There seemed to be a consensus that persistent and growing levels of poverty and homelessness in Australia and the UK demonstrate the inadequacy of state efforts to achieve a fair distribution of opportunities and resources. We see the state as having the primary role in addressing homelessness, not least because it has best access to the levers capable of doing do. In the absence of the state assuming its responsibility, however, lauding charities as beyond reproach is an inadequate response.  Though I can certainly think of examples of charities playing a role in calling for structural change and making the lives of people in poverty better, there are many other examples of charities pursuing ineffective approaches. During the week’s discussion, and during a great seminar attended by people representing charities and social service providers outside of the university, we thought about the worth of a recent charitable movement in Australia that involves mobile washing machines, mobile showers, and mobile haircuts out on the streets to people who are homeless (you can see my slides here).

In fact for much of the week we not only expressed concern about these new mobile charitable responses to homelessness, we also thought about what they say about our society, and whether they constitute a moral regression. Beth Watts and I have recently written about these charitable measures in a think piece for the European Journal of Homelessness. We argued that these charitable initiatives, in fact any charitable initiatives, “need to be subject to a more dispassionate and rational assessment of their value” and stressed the importance of meaningfully assessing whether positive intentions of the charitable actually achieve positive outcomes for people who are homeless. In the end, we saw some of these new charity models as potentially worse than ineffective in achieving housing outcomes, not least because they risk normalising homelessness and distracting our attention from evidenced, dignified, housing-led ways of meeting the needs of people who are homeless.

About five years ago, Suzanne Fitzpatrick (Director of I-SPHERE) and I (with our colleague Volker Busch-Geertsema) were debating finer details about the models of housing and support that were most effective and appropriate for people exiting homelessness. Our concern back then was about the ensuring access to ‘normal’ housing, and we were motivated to question policy that pushed us back to the days where society had special housing for those prescribed as different. It is deeply troubling that now, in Australia but in other rich countries too, we are funding charitable models that have as their mandate a desire to wash the poor and their clothes on the street. How did we go from debating forms of housing for people exiting homelessness to now funding mobile washing machines in public spaces? In Australia and of course in the United Kingdom, we can afford to provide housing to all; when we use government funding to grow an industry of mobile laundries to people living on the streets we do so because of our poverty of ambition.

Thank you Suzanne and Beth for hosting me. The intellectual environment at I-SPHERE is exciting. I hope the ideas we debated can contribute to policy and public debate and help ensure that people who are homeless will have the material resources, privacy, and autonomy to choose to wash themselves and their clothes, or not, as they please.