One of the things I have learned about working in homeless centres is that they are not short of donations of food and clothing. I spent the first week of my most recent placement in Manchester knee deep in harvest donations, which came in bagfuls faster than we could sort and store them. As Christmas approached, the donations increased: bags of clothes, shoeboxes full of toiletries, and the assorted items collected in ‘reverse Advent calendars’.
This abundance of donations says much about the generosity of the people who give them, but it also says something troubling about British society. There is a huge gap between people who are living in chronic poverty, struggling for the basics of food, clothing and shelter, and people who have more than they need. Our charitable response to this situation is simply handing things across the gap: the gap itself is not closing.
For some people, crisis is short lived – a man becomes homeless through unemployment and relationship break-up, depends for a while on food parcels and winter shelters, and gets back on his feet. But for many more, the crisis is permanent: food banks and clothing handouts enable families embedded in cross-generational, lifelong, working poverty to survive hand to mouth, trapped between rent arrears, ill-health and the benefit system merry-go-round. The grim truth is that the piles of donations, in making this kind of long-term crisis sustainable, are unwittingly sustaining a system that is quietly crucifying the weakest.
This brings me to a second gap: the gap of agency. We hand things across the poverty gap because we don’t know what else to do. The suffering of others compels us, but we struggle to identify or engage with its structural causes, particularly on a local level. In an era of globalisation, the levers of power seem out of reach. How do you bring pressure to bear on a multinational corporation to change working conditions in a local warehouse, so that people struggling with ill health, poor housing, and dependence upon unreliable public transport, have a chance of employment there? How do you tackle a local council’s housing policy, when the purse strings are held by a government hell bent on reducing the deficit? Community organising is beginning to address this agency gap, and it demonstrates the possibility of effective local action on problems that seem too big to solve, but there is a long way to go.
In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens notes wryly that charity must have its romance – we need to feel good about doing good. While there are people living in poverty, I cannot care too much about the motivations of those who hand them food and clothing across the gap. But if we are to close the gap, we need to move from reflex reactions of compassion to finding more complex, long-term forms of solidarity that help to rebuild the dignity and agency of people living in poverty.
Theodora Hawksley trained as a theologian at Durham University and Edinburgh University, specialising in ecclesiology, peacebuilding and Catholic Social Teaching. She entered the Congregation of Jesus in January 2015.