Home is central to the Christian story. Several key movements in the story hinge on the idea of a home and the safety it provides. Between narratival bookends — creation of the original home in the Garden of Eden in Genesis and the awaited return to the City of God in Revelations — we have eviction from the Garden and the subsequent exile as God’s people experience the disconnect of being homeless.
In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve must leave the Garden they share with their Creator and friend. The serpent unsteadied Adam and Eve with a distortion of God’s word. Their complicity begat disobedience and the relationship with their Creator was fractured. This disobedience had two faces: transgressing established limits required for a good life in choosing to eat from the trees; and the desire for expanding autonomy, to put themselves front and centre, as they chose to be like gods. For this, they entered into exile and since then we have also been existentially homeless.
This mythic tale has contemporary relevance. We could consider the lack of limits and how our central dogma prioritises private property rights over human wellbeing. But here we should consider the second face — the claim of autonomous power for ourselves — as our jumping–off point to try and make more sense of the housing crisis as we move through Advent.
Advent, as we wait for Christmas, has been described as a time of contradictions: darkness and light, optimism and hope. In a similar vein, contradictions emerge within our housing system. Wealth and poverty, security and precarity. To extend this thought on contradictions a little further, the duality of autonomy and captivity is useful. Like Genesis 3, by striving to have more autonomy, we have unintentionally created captivity and limitation.
In the Republic of Ireland, the central mechanism for housing is the private market. It’s how we build new homes, provide rental homes, and increasingly, source social homes. A relatively new development has been the utilisation of the private rental market, through the use of heavy subsidisation, to provide housing to households who qualify for social housing, further diminishing the role of the State.
The coronavirus and the accompanying lockdowns catalysed certain legislative responses (albeit short–term) to homelessness — blanket bans on evictions, rent freezes — which had been discussed for years but were previously met with opprobrium and resistance. The central message was that people who owned property, whether rental homes or land must, be able to act unhindered. The housing and homelessness crisis is, in essence, the consequences of unrestrained autonomy expanded to the social scale.
It is autonomy for some, captivity for many. Few affected by the housing and homelessness crisis in the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland could be described as being in control of their surroundings, having autonomy over the material aspects of their lives. At present, in the Republic, there were (at last count) 1,128 families in temporary accommodation. They endure the limbo of “institutional space” in hotels, bed and breakfasts, family hubs. In Northern Ireland, in the six months up to June 2019, 1,664 families (we can’t forget these numbers are calculated differently each side of the border) were accepted as statutorily homeless.
But by simply taking the number of children officially recorded (and even that is not the full picture!) as homeless in both jurisdictions, there are easily over 5,000 minors homeless on the island of Ireland at any time. In a more typical pantomime season, this would be enough to fill the Grand Opera House in Belfast five times over. Children remain the single largest group, and fastest growing group, within the homeless population and we must allow ourselves to be discomfited and unsettled by this stubborn fact.
The loss of autonomy, or captivity, is not just present in the institutional homeless space. The grind of poverty or debt creates its own captivity. In 2019, a fifth of tenants in the private rental market in the Republic, spent over 40% of their disposable income on housing alone, with over a tenth spending half of their net income. This environment places tremendous stress on family life, personal relationship, work choices, and general mental and physical well–being.
My colleague has argued elsewhere that “while homelessness may be our existential state, there is no justification for homelessness being our sociological reality.” We must be aware that by being comfortable within the housing systems in Ireland, we have endorsed unjust autonomy. Within their current design, some people will be safe, flourish, and accrue wealth. Many will not. Many will be bound in cycles resembling captivity whether poverty, institutionalisation, or both.
To prepare ourselves for the City of God – when our eviction will end – and cognisant of our homeless state, we must seek to end homelessness here and now for others.
Keith Adams is Social Policy Advocate at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice
This post is one of a series on this blog which aims to provide resources for reflection and action on the topic of homelessness. Different voices representing a number of organisations will help focus us on the scale of the issues including the personal and social impact involved. The blog inputs will also offer useful suggestions for study and civic engagement. Small church community gatherings will find them most helpful. There will be seven posts in all and they will be published on every Sunday and Wednesday in Advent. Please pass on the word to others about this initiative. May Advent be a grace–filled time for you. Further resources for churches on housing insecurity and homelessness can be found at irishchurches.org/homeless.