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homeless ethics

The Ethical Ambiguities of Homelessness


It is almost twenty years since a friend’s mother was diagnosed with skin cancer, and told to give up her Mediterranean sunbathing holidays.  This sacrifice was too much for her, and off she went to Greece, and soon after to her grave.  It was heart-breaking, but who could stop her?  There is no law against this, and it throws up moral ambiguities that are not easily answered.


The Corporation of London, and its partner agencies, are currently wrestling with precisely this moral ambiguity, but with even more difficulty.  On the whole, life expectancy of those living on the street is horrifically short, so of course, many people don’t want anyone subjected to such a life-style.  The Corporation’s strategies for helping the rough sleepers of the city who want to be helped are superb.  But people are not all homeless for the same reason.  For some it is a choice, a coping mechanism that tries to deal with a host of problems. Such people are often resistant to the help that is offered, and the kind of help available does not always guarantee a better way of life.  


The tough ethical question that faces the Corporation is this: can you force people to receive the help that you offer?  For those who are ready for help, the Corporation’s achievements are magnificent.  The problems seem to arise when their help is resisted.  And the problems are compounded by targets imposed by Central Government (The Department for Communities and Local Government, headed up by Hazel Blears):  Zero people sleeping rough by 2012.


By imposing such targets, Central Government has the capacity to shape the ethical policy adopted by all organisations that receive any kind of public funding.  It therefore seems little coincidence that, in my experience, all publicly funded homeless organisations affirm the same moral code: that there should be no rough sleepers on our streets, and any assistance offered by any agency that helps people sleeping rough, is ‘killing with kindness’.  Soup runs or free meals provided by churches for instance, are regarded as naïve and dangerous.


Many people hold such a view, but I have yet to find a publicly funded body that does not.  However, this one-size-fits-all approach is not the only moral stance.  Further still, the ideal of ‘zero rough sleepers’ on our British streets is fine sounding, but meaningless until the factors that lead people to become homeless in the first place are all dealt with.  If in Britain, there were no self-destructive addiction problems, no relational disasters or debt crises, then perhaps we can speak with more confidence about homelessness not being an option.  Until these massive problems are solved, the attempt to achieve the target of zero rough sleepers in Britain looks to many like trying to cure skin cancer using make up.