For the past three years, I have come into contact with many homeless people whilst working in the City Centre of Birmingham. This experience stirred something within me to help, leading me to join a homeless outreach community group that supports people on the streets. The group distributes free food and hot drinks, and encourages its volunteers to develop relationships with those they help. I have been working with them for 18 months and over this time I have begun to understand the complexities of life on the streets; a life where there are no rules or accountability, and from which one might find it increasingly difficult to escape.
‘Homelessness’ is an emotive word that commonly causes people to picture one of two things: the tramp walking the street, smelly, dirty and hungry; or the alcoholic, obnoxious, loud and drunk. In reality, one could become homeless for a multitude of reasons; there is no set formula as to a cause or a solution. To view all homeless people in terms of these stereotypes is to do many an injustice. Stereotype profiling can warp a person’s view of someone, and then of themselves, causing low self-esteem and self-worth, and we are more likely to believe and support situations that conform to our social stereotypes than those that contradict them. Using my own experience, I shall briefly explore the three broad categories that bring people on to the streets and will consider the situations in which engagement with character education, from my understanding of the subject, could be of value. I shall be considering the effects on those who have been homeless for 6 months, from a perspective that assumes no prior knowledge of their state of character or their experience of character education.
Firstly, the cycle of addiction can force a person into homelessness and can be detrimental to their character over the short or long term. Addiction to drugs or alcohol can often be one of the reasons why someone is on the streets and can also provide a coping method for the challenges they face. Their addiction eventually becomes more important than anything else in their lives, including their home and family. This may be the result of a ‘weaker’ character, such as unwillingness to take action themselves, lack of commitment, minimal willpower. However having a perceived ‘strong’ character does not necessarily mean a person has what it takes to survive on the streets. ‘The person of good character is he who does the approved thing at the right time and does not break the rules when he faces inner temptation’. In this context, developing particular virtues could have a positive influence on an addict, by giving them the willpower and self-discipline to resist the temptation to relapse, for example.
Someone could become homeless due to unforeseen circumstances that can be difficult to prepare for, such as, losing their job, a family split or financial problems. Can the development of particular character virtues place someone in good stead to be able to tackle such situations as they arise, ultimately avoiding homelessness as the outcome? I believe it can – one who has experienced character education in some form, in my opinion, would be more likely to be able to prevent or resolve a situation that may force someone into homelessness. ‘Aristotelian character education makes it clear that character education is about the cultivation of virtues as specifically human excellences’. I have seen for myself an example of this in someone who the group supports: Mark (aged 45) injured his back working, developed a heavy alcohol dependency and became homeless. After continuing this cycle for a number of years, he is slowly getting himself back on his feet. From meeting Mark at this point, having no prior knowledge with regards to his character, I feel some form of character education could be beneficial to his development and rehabilitation. Phronesis helps individuals to get things right using practical wisdom: it is what helps individuals to make the right judgement in any given situation. I feel that with the correct teaching, character education could transform someone like Mark, who is perhaps in a less complex situation, to make better, more informed decisions.
Caplow (2009: 51) defines homelessness as: ‘a condition of detachment from society characterised by the absence or attenuation of the affiliative bonds that link settled persons to a network of interconnected social structures’. A conscious decision could be made by the individual to ‘live on the streets’ due to various personal reasons. They may have chosen to do this for moral reasons, such as to escape domestic abuse or perhaps out of protest in a certain situation. At this point, there could be mental health and social issues amongst other things in the person’s past which would influence their character. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics II, he suggests that character state is concerned with choice and a mean between two vices. However, I would challenge their motivations and would suggest that living on the streets is not conducive to a flourishing life. Character education helps people address the complex nature of the decision-making process, the weighing of values and beliefs to make value-laden decisions. With exposure to character education I feel that someone who is willing to change could find value in this. It could help them to make a more appropriate decision to seek help through other avenues, with the ultimate aim of getting off the streets.
John Bauckham, Administrator, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
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