I am not big on being told what to do. I will listen and learn; I will discuss and discover; I will converse, be curious and when necessary revise my understanding – or as John Maynard Keynes (or maybe Winston Churchill) allegedly put it – ‘when the events change my mind changes’. But I dislike being told what to do.
So when I read about an American saying that there is no excuse for not stopping homelessness in Scotland, my hackles raised. I know stopping homelessness is at the very heart of all we do in Cyrenians. Stopping homelessness is why we started and why we are still here 50 years later.
But then I dug a bit deeper. The American was a man called Sam Tsemberis – the psychologist who founded the world’s first Housing First programme in New York. His willingness to stop seeing people in the tough reality of homelessness as the problem and instead start seeing our attitude to them as the issue was so ground-breaking as to be revolutionary. To replace the ‘deserving poor’ attitude that says ‘you can get a house when you’ve sorted out your life’, he argues for the idea that housing is a human right, and our task as citizens is to ensure everyone has the support to be able to access this. On this, he is absolutely correct.
It’s a philosophy which sees a sense of moral obligation to our neighbour and the stranger, where we treat others as we would want to be treated. And it works because it’s build on respect for others whatever their circumstances. It’s one of the many reason I was very keen for Cyrenians to be at the heart of delivering Housing First in Scotland.
Sam Tsemberis is right because he sees Housing First as being essential to ending homelessness, but it cannot do it alone. It needs political will, it need resources, and it needs other complementary services and support. It’s interesting that Dr Tsemberis named his organisation Pathway Housing; we at Cyrenians often talk of ‘journeys’, of steps towards a better future. Change takes time, and it happens at different times in different places and different ways.
These are journeys which need to be shared. They need a willingness from us all to travel them even when the going gets tough. And they are journeys in which we all can be changed by the experience – as I was when I stopped thinking I was being told what to do and started to understand I was hearing the words and ambitions of a fellow traveller – one I may not have met but with whom I feel I share a great deal about how the world might be if we are willing to make the commitment to travel the road home together.