I know there is compassion for people living without adequate shelter in our communities, no question. But how deep does compassion go?
In my work in looking at how we might shift the stigma around people who are homeless, I have found myself seeing the homeless population as two main groups.
First is the group that has become under-housed through a series of circumstances outside of their control: fires, floods, renovictions, job losses, injuries, illness, spousal or child abuse. These are lives that may have begun with the disadvantages of poverty, family disruptions, or abuse — or not. They may have changed suddenly. They are kids, mothers, wives, dads, brothers and sisters, even grandparents, who have abruptly, or over time, been pushed out of their homes and run out of good options or help.
The second group is those who are trapped in substance use. This can range from almost hidden, higher-functioning use, to a desperate spiral involving taking critical health risks and engaging in prostitution or crime to support the addiction. You see them slumped on sidewalks or huddling together in groups around a crack pipe. They leave their needles where they used them.
So those are the two groups for whom you might, or might not, feel empathy and compassion.
One paints the other with a less attractive colour.
I know that most people can empathize to some degree with the first group — “not their fault, a shame about their childhood”…. For the second group, many people struggle with the idea that someone’s life can get that far out of control. They believe that people in the grip of addiction are to blame for their situation, applying manufactured moral rules. “They are bad people, losers, and criminals. They need to ‘find God’”.
No one, including me, wants to see people in full view of the public, whose lives have become so broken, that we are both saddened and frightened by what we see. Some community members who I have both spoken with, and watched in action, see no problem with doing these people actual physical harm or, at the very least, harassing them until they “go away.” Many people I’ve spoken with want them to be helped — as long as it’s somewhere else. Largely, the public sentiment is, “they need to be housed and helped —
just not here”. I have literally heard those words over and over again.
So where? Where does this growing number of people who are homeless go when their backs are against the wall?
For many of the homeless I’ve interviewed, their families live nearby. And many still see their families often. They are not imports from other cities or countries. They are members of our communities. By necessity, they live near the supports that do exist, but they subsist at best. The network of “helping organizations’’ is a mix of government, NGO, and religious groups that lack inter-organizational coordination and funding.
There is no “big plan.”
So our under-housed trek (carrying everything they own in a plastic bag or backpack) from one office to another — one for housing, one for food, one for lodging, one for counseling. And the shelter that the “lucky” ones are afforded is not a home. It is often a place where there is danger of crime, rape, and other physical harm. It is simply a roof, some heat and sometimes a bed. Sleeping with one eye open on their meager possessions, or even on their children. Homes, when they become available (likely one or two years hence) are usually run down, often unsafe, and in crime-ridden neighbourhoods. Communities don’t want these rough neighbourhoods any more than people who are displaced want to live in them.
How is a life of struggle, just to meet daily nutritional and safety needs, a way out of homelessness, let alone addiction? How can it inspire the courage to take the big steps necessary to make change? We would all like them to get a chance. Just, not here.
Are we all okay with that? Can we live with knowing a growing number in our community are falling off the radar, living lives of misery, and dying too early? If my guess is accurate, we will see a lot more people losing homes over the next few decades because of the climate crisis. Many will have insurance and the resources to survive, but many will not. The spectre of homelessness is here to stay, in every single community in every part of the world. Let’s get out of our ostrich state and insist that our government get it together and fix it.