Ewan Aitken: Dare to dream of an end to homelessness

Oscar Wilde's famous line about the gutter and the stars is a metaphor for equality and hope despite our struggles if we are able to look beyond the immediate. Picture: W. & D. Downey/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Oscar Wilde's famous line about the gutter and the stars is a metaphor for equality and hope despite our struggles if we are able to look beyond the immediate. Picture: W. & D. Downey/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Oscar Wilde said, or at least had one of his characters in his play Lady Windermere’s Fan say, “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”. It is a metaphor for equality and hope despite our struggles, if we are able to look beyond the immediate. It offers a way of approaching the New Year reflections which are part of our celebrations at this time of year.

I am not a great fan of New Year resolutions. I struggle with them because they are usually framed in a sense of what we have failed at or to be. Anything driven by a sense of previous failure seems to me to be destined to fail.

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians

Wilde’s line is more accepting of the reality of life’s difficulties. It implies we all deal with challenges in life no matter who we are, and encourages us to seek inspiration from the stars – dream the impossible, then choose to reach for it.

In my professional world, the approach to the moral scandal that is increasing homelessness, despite some extraordinary efforts both politically and from the third sector, needs to be as ambitious as “we’ll end it in five years”. We know the reality of austerity, Brexit, and a shockingly immoral new welfare system greatly increase instability in people’s working lives. Coupled with an increase in drug use, growing fragility in families and many other factors, ending homelessness in five years is a serious reach for the stars, but if we start out by saying we’ll never do it, guess what – we’ll be right.

We can see “the stars” too in the simplest of moments. Every Monday starts with a meeting of the Cyrenians leadership team. We begin with a brief reflection in which everyone describes their “moment” of the previous week. Anything from a significant comment or a conversation, to something being completed or something new beginning; anything which reflects not just what we do but why we do it and the values which underpin all our work – respect, compassion, integrity and innovation. It sets the tone for our conversations, in particular the crunchy moments when we grapple with difficult decisions, which every organisation faces. I believe if we continually and deliberately remind ourselves why we do what we do and how we do it, the decisions about what we should do in any given situation will be clearer, if not always easier.

Many years ago I visited a woman whose daughter was an alcoholic. Every fortnight, when her dole money, as it was then, came in, her daughter would drink herself into the gutter, often literally, and her mother, a tiny, frail and exhausted Leither, would pick her out of the gutter, dust her down, take her home and look after her until the next time. In my naive, youthful lack of wisdom, I suggested acting in “tough love”; leaving her daughter where she had fallen. I will never forget the steely look this tiny mother gave me as she replied: “How could I leave her there – she’s my daughter and I love her.”

I have never forgotten her unconditional sacrificial commitment to her daughter. She knew the values she lived by and she reached into the gutter so her daughter could, once again, reach up to, if not the stars, the chance to once again start anew. It’s what we aspire to do in Cyrenians; be with those in tough realities, reminded that we all have our struggles, so we begin first and foremost as human beings together on a shared journey, reaching to whatever would be the stars for those we journey with; belonging, feeling they matter, believing they have the potential to really flourish.

This year my resolution will be simply to try to live the Cyrenians values in every moment, knowing each time I do I will see the path to the stars a 
little more clearly.

Ewan Aitken is the CEO of Cyrenians