Who is your neighbour?

published on 10 Jun 2014

A man was on a journey when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him bare, taking everything  and left him with no good reason to carry on living. Having no home, for that, too, had been lost, he stopped outside the Church and began to settle into a secluded, but secure, doorway to shelter for the night. But, the pastor of the Church had placed sharp metal spikes in the cold cement slab; spikes which, defying all health and safety regulations, pointed menacingly up at him, defying him to lie there and be stabbed in the back… again!

So he stumbled painfully away and, down the road, discovered the doorway to the offices of a law firm. But, he had not gotten as far as dropping his heavy bag before the pungent stench of bleach assailed his runny nose and he quickly left the scene. (He had noticed that some owners around the city were spraying their entrances with bleach and the acridity was so overpowering that it prevented anyone taking shelter in those doorways.)

Wearily, he wandered farther, feeling as if he had been attacked all over again, stripped bare and left for dead. But, soon after, he was stopped by someone – an immigrant, from the Romani people. He was homeless himself, but had found shelter in a disused garage down an alleyway. So, the Romani immigrant took in the victim. He gave him shelter and shared the meagre rations he had.

Some of you will recognise the similarities with Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan and what I have written above. I thought about the good Samaritan story when I saw an article in the Guardian newspaper.

Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan in answer to a question. It was a crucial question in the context of their conversation and it remains a crucial question in our day as we seek to deal with the challenges we face, not least the challenge which people who are homeless face and present to us.

Who is my neighbour?

The way we define who our neighbour is will determine, to a large extent, how we react to the article in The Guardian. Feelings of outrage could be vented towards homeless people as much as it could towards those who have mounted the bed of spikes – depending on who you perceive your neighbour to be. Equally, feelings of empathy could be directed towards one or other of the people on either side of this ‘bed of spikes’, so to speak. Indeed, it is even possible to feel for both groups. It all hinges on an understanding of who my neighbour is.

And, there lies the challenge – we are talking about people. Indeed, we are talking about some of the most vulnerable people in society. They are exposed to all kinds of dangers and terrors, having to survive in appalling conditions. These are people and, when society allows people to be treated in the same way as we would treat animals (as per the cattle-grids we use to keep animals at bay ), then something happens to all of us – to those who actually do it, to those who endure it and to the rest of us who observe it. We become less than we should be as people. We let ourselves down when spikes are used like cattle-grids to keep ‘undesirables’ away.

This is a complex situation – I would be obtuse to pretend that it is not. I can understand the genuine concern, especially for those who are elderly or young, and fear at encountering a strange person curled up in a doorway of a residential building. The residents living in those flats are our neighbours, too. But, placing spikes in entrances is not the solution!

The spikes dehumanise homeless people. By treating them as we treat troublesome animals, the spikes remove the obligation and, indeed, the inconvenience of having to have any personal contact with an individual. As in other aspects of their lives, homeless people are rendered even more anonymous by the spikes – there is no need for any interaction from another human being, the spikes drive them away. The system – again – contrives to conspire against them, reinforcing their faceless dehumanisation. And, for society, the problem of their homelessness is not resolved, it is simply moved to another location.

The problem is much deeper than the mere removal of spikes, of course. The ‘robbers’ need to be identified and, as is possible, eliminated! That is a complicated and long-term process that in the meantime will see many others attacked and stripped down beyond their own humanity before those ‘robbers’ can be arrested. And, the numbers of homeless people rise and the temptation to raise barriers increases.

The Salvation Army is committed to working with the authorities to address the immense challenge presented by homelessness in the country. We see the need to work together in order to tackle the problem and help these, our neighbours. Although parameters are important in our partnership, the existence of spikes is indicative of a need for a measure of flexibility.

• Should we be discussing direct-access possibilities for these neighbours?
• Should those who partner with the authorities be given the freedom to help those we find robbed, stripped beyond their humanity, driven from pillar to post, but not eligible to be helped by the authorities because they do not qualify for help locally?
• Should we be challenging the local definition of ‘homeless’ as rigorously as Jesus challenged the lawyer’s definition of neighbourliness?

After establishing that true neighbours go out of their way to help each other, in the story of the good Samaritan, Jesus concludes by saying: “Go and do likewise!” I would appeal to all of us, rather than leave homeless people unacknowledged and unattended – by letting spikes deal with them - let us “go and do likewise” by determining to do two simple things:

1. Acknowledge their existence as people, by looking them in the eye and greeting them instead of trying to “walk on the other side”;

2. Connect them with Streetlink, which provides local support for people who are homeless

In the meantime, The Salvation Army calls on the authorities to end the inhumane measure of embedding spikes in doorways to keep homeless people away. I call on the authorities to end the inhumane measure of embedding spikes in doorways to keep homeless people away. And, I call on Salvationists to consider adding their names to the petition to end the inhumane measure of embedding spikes in doorways to keep homeless people away.

Go and do likewise – after all, these people are your neighbours!

[1]Author’s note:  Although the robbers are never “identified” because they are not pertinent to the man’s immediate challenges, their “identities” are worth delving into once the immediate crisis is addressed, because they may prevent similar “robberies” occurring in future

[2] He lost his decency, his pride, his sense of purpose, his place, his sense of belonging, his identity, his humanity

[3] Or the spikes used to prevent pigeons from landing on buildings