What would St Vincent de Paul have thought about the World’s Big Sleep Out? It seems a long way from his view of charity, a quiet and loving activity of service. He would doubtless have supported its fundraising purpose – he always saw that money was needed to make the work possible. Would he also have rejoiced that so many people care about the homeless that they are willing to sleep on the street as a sign of solidarity? He said at one point ‘It is very difficult to do any good without conflict’, so perhaps he would have understood this 21st century way of responding to homelessness.
Later Vincentians saw clearly that the task is not finished when immediate help is given. Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the St Vincent De Paul Society, said “You must not be content with tiding the poor over the poverty crisis; you must study their condition and the injustices which brought about such poverty with the aim of a long term improvement.” In our own time, the Vincentian Family has explored the idea of working for ‘systemic change’ as part of the Vincentian mission.
In our role in civil society, we have to find a balance between persuading people in power to change systems, and telling the truth as we see it about how our society and our politics fail people. It’s not always easy; the Big Sleep Out strengthens us in this area. The more people who understand why homelessness matters, and care enough to take part in a sleep out, the easier is it for us to both persuade and, when it is needed, to protest.
Whether or not St. Vincent would have organized a sleep-out, he certainly gives us an example of doing new things and speaking to powerful people in order to carry out his work. We need to have the courage to do the same; and the confidence to use the possibilities of our own time to take our Vincentian mission into new places.