I have the joy of commuting to work at the Cardinal Hume Centre in central London via Southern Rail. I genuinely cannot remember what their timetable should be. In fact their strategy is to keep changing the timetable to suit the incessant and probably now endemic delays and cancellations. Checking the Southern phone app to see if trains are actually running at all, never mind running late, is now as habitual as brushing my teeth. Inevitably one ends up celebrating and being thankful to catch a train, in fact any train going in vaguely the right direction, rather than pausing and saying I am paying for this ‘service’! So it’s become normal to expect what in any other sphere of activity would be outrageous failure in delivering a contract.
The main dictionary definition of normalisation is ‘to become normal’ and I think there is a real risk for those of us who do care what happens to our fellow human beings, that we can begin to regard homelessness, exclusion, and destitution as ‘normal’. Yes we are still shocked especially when we hear an individual’s story and look into their eyes but do we really find it shocking that there are people who are living on our streets who literally have nothing? That foodbanks are now an accepted part of voluntary provision? That children go to school hungry and rely on free school meals to keep alive?
Normalising what should be considered shameful in a ‘civilised’ and rich society such as ours is dangerous as it desensitises us, it stops us getting outraged and therefore wanting to do something about it. I was recently told that I shouldn’t take action on something that I felt was flagrantly unjust just because I felt outraged, meaning that I needed to know my facts and have a thought through strategy in place to achieve my objective. I accepted that – and then began to question why shouldn’t I feel outraged as that is what galvanises me and makes me question the ‘new normality’ and do something to challenge it.
This last year, we have seen an increase in homelessness of one third in the UK, alongside exponential increase in poverty, in people being pushed over the edge into homelessness, of families going without food, as the noxious cocktail of reduction in public services, rises in the cost of living and welfare cuts take their toll.
If you have seen or heard of the film "I, Daniel Blake" about people who want to work but are defeated by the benefits system, and you are somewhat sceptical, please believe me, it's not just a story, it is not exaggerated, it's not just about a few people. It's happening every day, not just in London, but where you live, across the whole country. The UK benefits system is one of the toughest in Europe - and yet it was set up to be a safety net for society's most vulnerable people. And today, as it seems to be virtually dismantled, it's not just the most vulnerable who are falling through; it's more and more 'just managing' people and families. Every single day at the Centre we hear the stories of people who have been abandoned by the system. Many of them were ‘just managing’ but are now facing homelessness and destitution which besides being morally unacceptable, simply doesn’t add up in economic terms.
My New Year wish for myself is that I don’t fall into the trap of thinking this is all normal, that the country simply cannot afford to house people, or ensure families have enough to eat or keep themselves warm, that there is not enough room or resources to welcome people from overseas fleeing from war, persecution and grinding poverty. I don’t think I could live with myself if that’s the kind of person I become.
Cathy Corcoran OBE
Cathy has been the Chief Executive of the Cardinal Hume Centre based in Westminster since November 2002. She has seen the Centre’s services grow and develop with an annual turnover today in the region of £2.6 million. There are some 63 staff and over 100 volunteers at the Centre, providing a range of services on site for people of all ages including residential accommodation for homeless young people, housing and welfare rights advice, immigration advice and advocacy, English and digital inclusion, employment support and family services. Before becoming the Centre’s Chief Executive in November 2002, Cathy worked for CAFOD in a variety of senior posts including Director of the International Division. In addition to overall budget responsibility, extensive overseas travel and being one of the agency’s chief media spokespersons, she spearheaded CAFOD’s response to emergencies and opened up its programme in Eastern Europe. She also chaired the Caritas Internationalis Emergency Aid Commission in Rome. She received an OBE for her work with CAFOD in 2002. Cathy has served on several Trustee Boards including Christian Aid, the Disasters Emergency Commission, St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and the Caritas Social Action Network.