A familiar scene

In 2013 I spent four months’ sabbatical in Chicago. Walking around the college where I lived I was stunned by the number of homeless haunting the streets. Now, walking the main streets of our big cities, I have alarming moments of déjà vu – I’ve seen this all before.

Homelessness in New Zealand

The government tells us that our economy is booming, that lack of housing is just a transient problem arising from unexpected growth. The 2013 census, however, told us that one in every hundred was homeless, often sheltering with family or friends, urgently seeking a place of their own. But homeless is not just, or even primarily, an economic issue – it’s a spiritual affliction.

A Christian perspective

One of Jesus’ central teachings was that he had come to replace the Jewish temple. His risen presence would abide in believers and communities; he’d make his home with them. This would be a home marked by justice, open to hospitality, and alive with a sense of community, stability and hope.

What the research suggests

This year a brilliant study was published – Behave: the biology of humans at our best and worst, by Robert Sapolsky. As a biologist, Sapolsky explains how every ethical decision touches every human level – from the brain, hormones and genes, to upbringing and culture. The most recent trend has been to stress how genes shape upbringing and culture. Sapolsky shows at great depth how upbringing and culture significantly shape the action of brains and genes.

He is adamant that in our first five years our environment – very much the home – has a huge impact on the way we deal with anger and aggression. Though there are always exceptions, the emotional and spiritual effects of living in squalid surroundings, or with no permanent home, are very predictable. They include a sense of lovelessness, of worthlessness, and of low self-image and expectations. Those who emerge from such upbringings often believe that life is unjust; that’s what they expect and that’s what they dole out to others.

This explains why homelessness is far more than an economic problem; it’s a spiritual affliction.


Father Neil Vaney

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