14.06.2017 Conference on Roma homeless families : conclusions of Jacques Fierens, Lawyer and Law teacher (UCL, UNamur, ULg)

(14.06.2017, La Louvière – CMGVRW in collaboration with the CeRAIC)

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The reflection today is centered on “Roma homeless families”. “Homeless” is a strange word. The Roma families we spoke about today are indeed looking for shelters, and usually find some : corridors, squats, safe houses…

They are also looking for housing, which is better than just shelters. Finding housing is like a second degree in the search for a decent life. What does housing mean ? A spontaneous interpretation would be to say that housing is having a shelter, a roof, but with something “extra”, like a bit of comfort, but also the possibility to lead a private life and a family life.

There is a third degree, and I would like to focus my conclusions on it : a home to live in. Let us try and think a few minutes about what “live in” actually means.

These three notions – shelter, housing and home – call for different discourses, or at least different accentuations.

When we speak about “shelters” and “homelessness”, we quickly find ourselves in a “humanitarian” discourse, which is caracterised by emergency, and by a social action that must be immediate. But emergency situations also often call for a repressive discourse in the face of the daily improvisations homeless people are forced to abide by. Squatting, begging or stealing often calls for repression.

When we speak of housing, we are rather carried toward a juridical discourse. For a long time, at least since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the 10th of December 1948, we speak of a “right to housing”, which can now be found in the International Pact for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights from the 16 of December 1948, or in the Revised Social Chart of the Council of Europe from 1994, and in the 23rd article of the Constitution. Asserting this right in fundamental texts signifies that housing is an essential component of an environment for living that is consistent with human dignity. But this juridical discourse around housing, which also includes tenancy rights and rules of an “adequate” housing, often comes with a feeling of helplessness. Law in itself is rather a pretty thing. But look at the gap between the statements of principles and their effectiveness.

When we speak of a home, the third degree towards dignity, we must then engage in a discourse on what makes our humanity, including the notions of citizenship, of cohabitation, of family. These are things that the Law cannot give, but must recognize. Only speech, dialogue and listening can reach what makes us human.

What does it mean to “live in”, to “inhabit” ? I would propose to listen to what Friedrich Hölderlin, a German poet, wrote :

Voll Verdienst, doch dichterisch

wohnt der Mensch auf dieser Erde

In English, this means : “Full of merit, yet poetically, man dwells on/inhabit this earth” . The man “dwells on” or “lives in”, he “inhabits”. A fundamental trait of the human condition is to inhabit. Is it indecent to say so in the face of so many homeless people seeking shelters ? … Actually, the poet speaks about them ! He probably does so without targeting them, and without even realizing. He does not speak of humans as special people that are characterized by something they are missing, but rather as those who want to accomplish one of the most fundamental traits of human life : inhabiting.

“Full of merit, yet poetically, man inhabits this earth”. The wanderers, the homeless, the poor are full of merit ! Yet they are always asked for more : they must prove that they looked for housing, that they want to work, that they educate their kids properly, that they engaged in an individualized program of social integration, that they use the social allowances money adequately, that they do not do drugs, that they drink less, that they do not beg – or at least not with their kids -, that they show efforts for this and for that ! Really, they will exercise the right to inhabit this earth in a way that is full of merits.

“Full or merit, yet poetically…” The use of “yet” is not a translation mistake : the German says “doch”. The merits of the poor, which may one day be recognized, will never suffice to inhabit the earth humanely. Therefore the use of “yet”. Adding to the requirements that are imposed by a series of institutions and services, they must be able to inhabit in poetry. Poetry is the language of the truth, of the beautiful. It is not only spoken : it can be heard in music, or in the hits of the sculptor’s hammer, it can be seen in a dance performance or through photography. Listening to things, to people and to the world, and being able to say these things again in one’s own language, or show them through one’s personal creation or work, is what makes the poet. And it is what poor people will have to be able to do. It is what each and every one of us must do to finally “inhabit”.

Language is what is common to all humans. It was there before we were born, and will remain after our death. Aristotle used to say that the essential characteristic of the human being is language, logos. But he also specified that the language is not just a simple message, a simple information in a world which he did not know would one day be almost reduced to informatics. He used to say “the language is being able to distinguish just from unjust”. And he added that agreeing on this matter – what is just and unjust – is what makes a family, and further, is what makes a city.  Being able to determine the beautiful and the just, but being able of doing it together, with others, with one’s family and citizens… That is what “inhabiting” really means.

The wandering of homeless people is not just not knowing where to go, or going anywhere : it is not knowing whom to walk with in this search for justice. Wandering does not necessarily come with being criticized for what you say or do : mostly it comes with the fact that nobody cares about what you say or do, and that your actions and your words are not worth anything. A person’s life only makes “sense” once we recognize that this life is significant and that we can inhabit together with this person. This significance can only be given within a political community – “political” in the wide sense, namely within a community in which homeless people don’t only built a shelter or a temporary housing for themselves, but a city for all.

One can be accommodated right and inhabit wrong. Or be very badly accommodated and inhabit right. One can have housing and yet not inhabit. One can obviously not be Roma and find it very difficult to inhabit. One does not simply built its home with walls and a roof, but also with one’s neighbors, the sweetness of one’s wife, the blond heads of one’s children, the petanque club next door, the moustache of the police officer. Inhabiting is not only furnishing the rooms, it is also building streets between houses, and deciding together of urban planning, as well as of the plan of collective life. And I have heard that when it comes to living together, as a community, Roma are more skillful than many others.

Today we spoke of the heterogeneity of words such a “Roma” or “homeless”. We spoke about the misconceptions that generate clichés, a priori, stereotypes, xenophobia and stigmatization. We spoke about the distortions elaborated by populist media. We spoke about these twisted views on Roma which make it hard to dare to say where we come from. We spoke of collective memory, of persecution, of genocides – so unknown of and so insufficiently acknowledged – which justifiably generate distance and mistrust. We spoke of the indivisibility of human rights and we did so positively and negatively: if you do not have a house, how can you possibly have a family life and a job, how can you make sure your kids will go to school and will stay healthy, how can you vote ? On the opposite : if you have a house, you can then build and reinforce your family life, improve education opportunities for your kids, and you have higher chances of being employed. We spoke about the difficulties of getting a refugee status for Roma, even though the European Court for Human Rights condemned Greece, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria for discriminations against Roma. And the acts of discrimination in question sometimes went as far as setting their houses on fire, with people burnt to death as a consequence. We spoke about the difficulties to obtain social assistance.  We spoke about the difficulties of access to rights that we, in theory, should all have access to. We spoke about economical exploitation. We spoke about what I call the “Charles Quint” syndrome : Charles Quint was the first in our regions, to criminalize begging, even more so when practiced with children. That was 500 years ago ! See how things have changed… The topic of begging with children is still making waves today. Just look at the newspapers today : one again, an elected official is claiming for the penalization of this form of begging.

We spoke of all those difficulties. But do Roma people, in order to truly “inhabit”, have to wait until those difficulties are overcome ? Here again, Hölderlin answers : “Might a person, when life is full of trouble, look up and say : I, too, want to be like this ?” Yes, he answers. Poetry, the insertion in common language, allow for stopping to wander and finally look up. Should a man in pain wait for the moment he stops suffering in order to fully be ? No, says the pot, because it is precisely about “being” without waiting for possessing.

Do homeless Roma, when their life is full of trouble, have the right to no longer look down to their feet and the mud sticking them to the ground ? Do they have the right to forget about their body weight and their worries for their people, and to look up ? The poet’s answer, without any hesitation, is a resounding “yes”. And he is absolutely right.