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31 August 2022

Homelessness in Our Common Home: Understanding How We Are All Connected Matters

The LSRI, in collaboration with Catholic International Development Charity (CAFOD), hosted a panel at the 6th Annual Oxford Business and Poverty Conference on Housing held at the historic South School of the Examination School at University of Oxford. Carlos ZepedaAssistant Director in Policy and Practice, shares his experience.

When we think about our planet, all of humanity, all of its ecosystems, its history, its flourishing beauty, its troubles and dramas… what do we see? Do we really see it as an interconnected part of us and all life? Do we see it as our common home? It is understandably difficult to see our planet as one unified whole because this is not our usual way of looking at it. We normally experience it as the place where we live, walk and breathe. But if we could fly and see it from a distance, say, for instance, a million miles away, and observe it with the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, we would be blown away by the realisation that, in this tiny blue speck of dust somewhere in the belly of the universe, all its wonderful, unified, fragile beauty contains the entire history of humanity and life as we know it.

Throughout all the panel discussions, the burning idea was that humanity’s challenge to provide dignified and sustainable ‘housing’ for all, but especially for the most vulnerable, extends far beyond the primitive material definition of four walls and roof.

It was precisely this idea of interconnectedness that became the beating heart of a panel organised by the Laudato Si’ Research Institute in July, together with Catholic International Development Charity (CAFOD), in light of the 6th edition of the Annual Poverty and Business Conference at the University of Oxford, which was this year dedicated to housing and homelessness. It was a remarkable meeting. Throughout all the panel discussions, the burning idea was that humanity’s challenge to provide dignified and sustainable ‘housing’ for all, but especially for the most vulnerable, extends far beyond the primitive material definition of four walls and roof. It is a complex socio-ecological issue that must be considered from multiple angles that are themselves interwoven.  

Our panel reflected on the idea of ‘our common home’ through the lens of integral ecology. At its essence, this paradigm urges us to discover the interconnectedness of everything and to listen deeply and respond to the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth by linking people, all life ecosystems, and our spiritual, ethical, moral and values-based understandings. I was glad to share ideas with Dr Carmody Grey, an eco-theologian and Assistant Professor of Catholic Theology in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham and former Visiting Research Fellow at LSRI; Dr Rachel Valbrun, an architect and urban designer from UCL with a research interest in post-disaster reconstructions, with particular experience in the post-reconstruction of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake; and Fr Angus Ritchie, an Anglican priest and Director of the Centre for Theology and Community.  

The conclusion of our discussions could perhaps be summarised in a  single image: that of the humble broccoli. This edible green plant has a fractal-esque nature, in that it shows similar patterns regardless of scale. This is especially true in Romanesco broccoli.  Its beautiful tree-like structure branching out resembles how we can think differently about problems like homelessness from the perspective of integral ecology. As Fr Angus Ritchie highlighted, when we look at systemic challenges like homelessness and the ways in which it interconnects with multiple socio-ecological issues, the whole endeavour can sometimes become overwhelming. Alternatively, we can think and act small: by finding out how homelessness unfolds its interconnected threads and patterns at the local level and getting as close as possible to the lived realities of individuals deprived of a safe place to live and call ‘home’.  In other words, in order to think systemically about homelessness, it matters how we connect and understand the roots that sustain this socio-ecological injustice from the local level up. By closely studying and engaging with the problem on a local level, we can better understand the problem on a wider scale.  

In addition, as Dr Carmody Grey emphasised, unpacking the idea of what we understand by ‘home’ is central to how we see and understand ‘homelessness’. Our interconnectedness and interdependency with all life on the planet means recognising the ways in which the social degradation of the poor are connected to how we have normalised our way of life. Dr Rachel Valbrun stressed that, for instance, poor Haitians living in Port-Au-Prince could not escape their vulnerability to homelessness or to unsafe and degraded housing due to the ways in which poverty and vulnerability intersect with other challenges such as climate change, corruption, and inequality. Dr Valbrun showed maps that illustrated how poor Haitians in Port-au-Prince hit by the 2010 earthquake never managed to reconstruct and change the patterns that made their homes unsafe. The ‘socio-ecological construction of vulnerability’ was a concept that made tangible how injustice affects the poor the most and is reproduced time and time again when the root causes persist. Fr Ritchie argued that homelessness patterns in London also repeat and intersect with factors of politics, economics and other components that shape people’s lives.  On the issue of homelessness, it matters what we want to grow and what we want to sustain in our human ecology practices.  

Homelessness is, in the end, a form of injustice pervading our common home and we must attend to its causes, bit by bit, thread by thread.

The take-away message from our discussion was that overcoming homelessness starts by overcoming the silos and tunnel vision narratives that tell us that homelessness will be solved automatically by market economics or quick-fix state interventions. Positive change does not have to be overwhelming. It can start from the bottom up and be reproduced bit by bit locally, like fractals from Romanesco broccoli as long as we keep all that makes humans flourish connected. Homelessness is, in the end, a form of injustice pervading our common home and we must attend to its causes, bit by bit, thread by thread. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.  Perhaps if we saw our common home from the perspective of integral ecology, we could better discern how to make real change not just to homelessness, but to all forms of socio-ecological injustice everywhere.