Researching the problem of homelessness
November 4, 2008

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has again warned about the growing problem of homelessness. I have been reading – rather belatedly – a lecture on how a group of Christian lay people decided to take their own action on homelessness in Melbourne in the 1930s, which led to change at the time.

Professor Graeme Davison of Monash University gave the 2000 F. Oswald Barnett Oration: “The Compassionate Eye: Research and Reform”. Barnett, he recalled, in the early 1930s was invited to speak at a mission hall in a notorious inner Melbourne neighbourhood and he was shocked by the poverty.

Barnett, an accountant and Methodist lay preacher, lived in a pleasant part of the city and he was unaware of the poverty in other parts of the city. As a Methodist, he decided that something must be done. In 1934 the Barnett Study Group met for the first time in his city accounting office.

The Barnett Study Group was the continuation of a long tradition of Christian social activism. Davison identifies the following characteristics in that tradition:

. Religious orientation: the social survey was inspired by the ethical imperative of Christianity to “seek and save those who were lost”

• Youthful volunteer character: it drew upon the idealism of youthful middle class men and women

• Progressive view of society: the tradition sought to re-integrate the down-trodden and outcast into society and believed that this could in fact be achieved (and they were wary of the revolutionary tendency in communism)

• “Confident empiricism”: they had a faith in the power of numbers, naming, mapping, classifying

• Pragmatism: they collected facts to get results (and not just collected facts for the sake of it)

In Melbourne, Barnett’s work linked up with that of Father G K Tucker, founder of the (Anglican) Brotherhood of St Laurence. In Sydney the young Rev Alan Walker was about to embark upon his own survey, that of the mining town of Cessnock (his book was to become one of the first books on sociology published in Australia).

After World War II, the work that Barnett set out to achieve was incorporated into the expanding government departments and university faculties. Much was done on public housing.

Barnett (1883-1972) himself remained heavily involved on the housing issue in a number of official and unofficial capacities. Interestingly, according to the “Australian Dictionary of Biography”, he was virtually a lone voice at the time in attacking the proposals for multi-story flats as public housing. He has since been proved right on that issue as well!

Davison concluded his lecture with the comment that we need a revival of the tradition of independent, voluntary, empirical and morally-purposeful social inquiry in Australia. It is unlikely to come from the universities and it certainly won’t come from the consulting firms and other economic rationalists.

“I would like to think’, he said, “that it might come from the young; that the yearnings, which now find an outlet in the self-absorption of the New Age and charismatic Christianity, might regain a social dimension. Among my own students, I do notice an eagerness to be engaged in learning from life as well as from textbooks that might be harnessed by voluntary agencies for new projects of enquiry and reform”.

As the Prime Minister has pointed out, there is a great deal of work still be to be done on homelessness.