It is a statement often made in connection with humans experiencing homelessness. “It’s their choice.”
After twelve years of working in the homeless serving sector, I have yet to meet anyone, no matter their age, who stated, “I chose homelessness.”
It is a choice that is foisted upon someone. A choice that rears its ugly head when all other choices have lead to dead end alleys and closed doors.
It is a choice that was not made willingly, and in most cases, there’s no informed consent. It was made because there were no other choices and homelessness was the only door someone could walk through that wasn’t slammed in their face.
In child and family homelessness, I have never met a parent or parents who say, “We wanted this for our children. This is what they deserve/need/want.”
Homelessness is not a choice.
It’s a lack of choice. A lack of options. A lack of doors to open, roads to take, resources to fall back on to stave off the tragedy and trauma of getting to that place called Homeless.
It is not a choice.
At the family emergency shelter where I work, we are experiencing unprecedented numbers of families coming through our doors. Not one of these families say that the reason they came to the shelter is become they ‘chose’ to.
Their reasons are many. They are complex. They are numbing.
They were staying with friends and family, couch-surfing as its called.
They were evicted because they couldn’t pay the rent. Loss of job. An illness. Family upheaval.
They were fleeing family violence.
They moved from a reserve to the city only to find the city is not always a welcoming place. There is no “You are Welcome Here” doormat inviting them into the prosperity, stability and future they seek. There is mostly a “You’re here now. Good luck. You’re on your own,” mat that leaves them confused, frightened and feeling desperately alone as they struggle to figure out ways to keep their family together, fed and safe.
The choice leaves them, as the saying goes, between the devil you know and the devil you don’t. Go back to a reserve without clean water, with inadequate housing, where the suicide rates in youth are skyrocketing, where numbing through drugs and alcohol prevails, or… stay in the city where racism, discrimination and prejudice abound. Where high rents and landlords unwilling to rent to ‘those people’ turn you away before you even get to the door.
Where the colour of your skin shadows your every step forward, leaving you out in the cold, struggling to find safe shelter for your children so that they can grow up to be free. Strong. Successful.
Homeless is not a choice.
But we, the non-homeless, do make choices that leave homelessness as the only option for those struggling to get out of the raging waters of poverty and inter-generational traumas that colonialism has wrought upon families since settlers came to this land a few hundred years ago.
Our choices include immigration policies that do not link new Canadians to vital resources to get firmly planted in the vibrant network of their new homeland. Policies that leave young mothers and their children in homes where the one who sponsored them is also the one who is abusing them. They can’t/daren’t run away because he holds the papers that give them claim to their status and right to be in Canada.
Homeless is not a choice.
But we can make different choices. We can choose to be more tolerant, more understanding, compassionate even. We can choose to not tear down existing affordable housing to build new and costly places. Or when we do, we can choose also to replace what we tear down so that those who are being displaced have places to go that they can afford. Places that aren’t leaky or creaky or not big enough to hold a family, but are being used anyway because… there is no where else to go, except into homelessness.
I have choice.
I am privileged.
But the families who come to the shelter? They do not experience the privileges I do. They do not have the agency to make decisions about where to live, or go to school, or go on vacation.
Their lack of privilege has lead them to the one place they never wanted their children to be. Homeless.
So let’s cut out the myth about homelessness being a choice and get real with what’s really at issue.
The choices we’ve made as a society, choices designed to increase wealth and the standard of living for many, have also created an environment where poverty and homelessness flourish. These are the choices that have left those without privilege standing on the margins looking for a way to the other side of the street, stranded in poverty because our choices keep closing the door to vulnerable humans seeking to find their way to any place other than that place called Homeless.