A Call to Action on Homelessness


Address by Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP to the Community Forum on Homelessness, Parkroyal Hotel, Parramatta, 8 November 2011

As they were going along the road, a man said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” But Jesus replied, Really? Well let me warn you: “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (cf. Lk 9:57-8; Mt 8:19-20)

Not that Jesus was homeless in the ordinary sense. After his adolescence and young adulthood in a stable family home of a builder in Nazareth (Mk 6:3; Mt 2:23), he moved to Capernaum and lived either in his own house or that of Simon Peter (Mt 4:13; 8:5; 8:14ff).

Even when he was on the road people regularly took him in (e.g. Mt 9:10) and a team of loyal women tended to his needs and those of his apostles (e.g. Mt 27:55). So you might say it was three star homelessness or a gypsy existence rather than the kind of emergency described in our conference today.

But in another sense Jesus did indeed live rough. St John tells us that when the Word who was God and was at home with God took flesh and came to live among us, His own people rejected Him (Jn 1:11; cf. Mt 13:57-58).

Luke describes his mother being forced to give birth to him in a stable as there was no room in the inn (Lk 2:7). Matthew says they then fled from the dictator Herod the Great, as refugees to Egypt (Mt 2:14). When Herod died they returned to Israel but then hid in Mary’s town of Nazareth for fear of Herod’s son Herod Antipas Archelaus (Mt 2:19-23) who arrested and killed Jesus’ kinsman John (Mt 4:12; 14:1-13) and would in due course have a part in Jesus’ own death (Lk 23:6-16).

In the meantime Jesus fled the Herodians once again, this time deeper into Galilee (Mt 4:12-13). And while friends hosted him there from time to time, he chose an itinerant life (e.g. Mt 4:25; 9:9,35; 11:1; 15:21,29) and was often on the run from those who wanted to do him harm (e.g. Mt 8:34; 12:14-15; Lk 4:28-30).

My point is that Jesus knew homelessness and in turn cared for many who were outcasts and homeless themselves (e.g. Mt 8:28). He called his disciples into a kind of dispossession (e.g. Mt ch 10; 19:16-22), worrying not about how they were to feed and clothe and house themselves (Mt 7:25-34) but trusting in the hospitality of God and those to whom they were sent and so becoming itinerant preachers like himself (e.g. Mt 10:11-14, 23; Acts).

Jesus also taught them by his own example to be concerned for the ‘little’ or powerless ones who now included not just the widows, orphans and strangers, but even those who brought their suffering upon themselves, such as prisoners and those some would have regarded as the ‘undeserving poor’.

The test was how they cared for the needy, simply because they were in need, in whom they met Jesus himself (cf. Mt 25:31-46). His Good Samaritan provided not only nursing but emergency housing for the man mugged and left for dead; he responded to crying need and did not first ask whether the man had acted responsibly by walking down the road to Jericho (Lk 10: 25-37).

So the Church in due course had not only her itinerants but her hostels, orphanages and refuges, religious orders devoted to the poor including the homeless, St Vincent de Paul Society, CatholicCare and the rest.

I am very pleased we are co-hosting today’s community forum and that you have all taken part in it: it is a sign that this remains a passion amongst Christians. As we’ve heard today the other Christian Churches are also very involved in provision in this area of need.

Preventing homelessness among those at highest risk

Homelessness is an issue not only close to the Christian heart but also increasingly prominent in our wider community. Over the years governments have talked a lot and done some things about making housing more affordable or accessible. The government white paper entitled The Road Home: A National Approach to Reducing Homelessness and National Rental Affordability Scheme are two recent examples.

Over the years stamp duty rebates, first home owner schemes and other initiatives have been used to encourage home ownership and make it more affordable. But such schemes assume people can obtain credit and keep up their mortgage repayments. Meanwhile the price of buying and renting in Sydney keeps escalating, the stock of public housing relative to population declines, and for some people reasonable accommodation will cost half their income or more.

Add a global financial crisis or two and associated unemployment and mortgage stress and before you know it more than 100,000 are living homeless on any particular night. Add longer term social and cultural change and the proportion of the homeless who are children, families, divorcees or older people keeps growing, as do the victims of domestic violence, long-term unemployment or mental health issues ...

Four highly qualified speakers have taken us today through the whys and wherefores of all that and what can be done about it. What is clear to me is that we cannot look only to governments to address this need. Churches and charitable organisations, commerce, the academy, the media and others must combine if we are to do more than set targets.

Part of why our best-intentioned targets and strategies fail to solve homelessness is that homelessness is, in a sense, the human condition. This is told in the Old Testament where Adam and Eve are driven out of, or, effectively exile themselves from, their first home in the Garden of Eden and their descendants spend the whole of the Old Testament seeking, sometimes achieving, being dragged into exile from, and returning to the land they called ‘home’.

It has ever been so, with diaspora and return a constant theme in the history of the Jewish people and their spiritual children the Christians and Muslims. If Adam and Eve were the first exiles their children have been so ever since and that never-completely-at-homeness described by St Augustine and the mystics will only be satisfied by ultimately resting in God.

In the meantime we do our best to be at home in this world even as we look to our real home in heaven, and to assist those whose homelessness is more radical and painful. Since the late 19th Century when Catholic social teaching received a new impetus, the connection between housing and work has been a theme of Christian activism for social justice. The homeless are amongst those for whom the Church increasingly claimed to have a preferential love or option and for whom the community were said to have a responsibility.

By the early 1950s Pope Pius XII was drawing attention to homelessness and listing the need for a secure home amongst the core requirements of family life. Since the 1960s the Church has used the language of human dignity and rights when asserting that people have a right to a home.

But apart from wagging our prophetic fingers at the surrounding society what can the Church in Western Sydney do? One easy answer: sell all its artworks and other assets and build affordable housing. That is an understandable if simplistic solution, first, because the Church in Western Sydney doesn’t have many artworks or saleable assets! Most of what it has is already spoken for, such as the churches and schools which communities helped build on the understanding they would be dedicated to worshipping God and educating our children.

Through its parishes, diocesan agencies, lay associations and religious congregations the Church is also heavily involved in working with people suffering the range of disadvantage – helping prevent homelessness amongst those at highest risk.

The Church is also at the coalface assisting people in dealing with the effects of homelessness. We’ve heard today about agencies of the various Churches that provide accommodation of various types – Catherine Villa and San Miguel are two on my patch. UnitingCare and other faith-based agencies also provide accommodation services. These services range from intensive 24/7 support to crisis accommodation to supported accommodation and more. So no one should suggest this is an area of need neglected by Christians. But we have the asset base and the influence to do more.

What else, then, can we do? I am heartened that CatholicCare Parramatta has partnered with Churches Housing to put on today’s forum and that people from a variety of backgrounds have taken part. Few people realise just how much unmet need there is in Western Sydney for emergency accommodation and longer-term affordable housing.

Cathy Tracey drew our attention to an ACU study that found that last year alone 84,000 Australian children tried to get help from a homelessness service – 1 in 60 of our children – but more than half were turned away (Seen and Heard: Putting Children on the Homelessness Agenda). Catherine Villa has experienced similarly overwhelming demand amongst pregnant women and young women with infants. With the population of Western Sydney projected to double in my term as bishop we can expect the gap may well widen.

God-loving people in stable accommodation can easily miss the seriousness of this issue or feel a deficit of responsibility for it. So the Church must heighten awareness and again teach its own members about the right to housing and the need for all to assist in achieving this entitlement.

The Church must also walk her talk, and lead by example. I have asked the Diocesan Business Manager and the Executive Director of CatholicCare to explore how the Diocese of Parramatta can better contribute to reducing homelessness.

I’ve asked those responsible for our pastoral planning process to put this on their agenda. I do not have any pre-conceived notions of what we may end up doing, but I do hope we can do more. Today’s forum is a start. We will leave better informed.

I would like to thank our Master of Ceremonies Noel Debien (ABC Radio Religion Unit), our speakers Rev Derek Yule (Executive Officer of Churches Housing), Rosemary Bishop (Chair of Affordable Community Housing and CEO of Mamre Services at St Marys), Tanya Gadiel (CEO of Community Services, Parramatta Mission) and Cathy Tracey (Senior Manager Community and Family Services, CatholicCare Parramatta), as well as our organisers Collette Thatcher, Amber Ritchie, Jane Favotto and of course the Executive Director of CatholicCare, Otto Henfling.

May that Son of Man who had nowhere to lay his head bless all of you with the knowledge and consolation of serving Him in those who are hungry, naked or homeless.

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