While each of us is unique, there are no unique circumstances in homelessness. No matter who you are, or how you got there, homelessness harms everyone. It destroys dignity. Breaks down self-respect. Rips apart self-worth.
Discrimination is a common occurrence when you’re homeless. People look at you as less than, other than, something different than a ‘regular’ human being and not worthy of common decency.
People drive by and spit at you out car windows. They call you names. They cross the street to avoid walking on the same side as you are on.
When you’re homeless, instability is the foundation of your life. Will there be a bed for me tonight? Will I get robbed of my few possessions? Will I get beaten up for taking up someone else’s space I didn’t know was theirs? Will a gang of kids think it’s a cool idea to throw gasoline on me and watch me burn? Will someone decide they don’t like the way I’m looking at them and decide to teach me a lesson?
When you’re homeless, there are no written rules of engagement except the one that says, you must survive.
When you’re homeless, you don’t have the luxury of depending upon each breath following the next. You never know when the breath you just took will be your last.
I am always amazed when people in the broader community tell me they are afraid of people experiencing homelessness. “What do you think they will do?” I ask.
“They’ll attack me. Take what I’ve got because they want it more.”
“That’s unlikely to happen,” I tell them. “When did you last hear of someone iin homelessness randomly attacking someone on the street?”
“Well…” They usually pause here to search their brains for a memory of a story about such a situation. They come up blank.
It just isn’t the way it is.
What is true is that when you’re homeless, you are vulnerable. No matter the colour of your skin, your faith, your culture, homelessness is a vulnerable state of being and while someone may not be stalking ‘normal folk’ to attack, they are at risk of being attacked. Both by ‘normal folk’ and those in the homeless community.
Keeping a low profile is essential when you’re living the homeless experience. It’s important to not attract too much attention because attention gets you in trouble. Attention leaves you exposed and visible. And being visible is not a healthy state of being in homelessness.
On Friday, we held a World Homeless Awareness Day event here in Calgary. Our Mayor came and gave an impassioned speech talking about the need for affordable housing. Affordable Housing is The Key our posters read.
And it is. You can’t end homelessness without a home to go to.
The challenge is, people often don’t want people with lived experience of homelessness living in their communities.
My property value will drop, they tell me. Crime will rise. Parking will be a mess.
I show them the research. Talk to them about the right of everyone to have a home. The need for diversity in our communities.
And still, underlying it all is the fear that because that person is different than me, because they carry a label I’m unable or unwilling to see beyond, they will harm my way of life. They will want what I’ve got and take it from me.
Homelessness is not the issue. Our misconceptions, our perceptions and our judgements are.
In his speech, Mayor Nenshi stated, “Homelessness sucks!”
And you know what else sucks?
Our belief that those who are living in homelessness are different than, other than you and me.
The only difference between us is that their issues are on the surface. They are visible for all of us to see that life is fragile. Life is unpredictable and the only way through it is to count on one another, hold true to our belief in the dignity and majesty of the human being and celebrate our differences and our similarities.
And we can’t do that when we cross to the other side of the street to avoid walking past someone whose pain is visible on our streets.