Let’s be clear. Homelessness does not belong in our backyards. It does not belong on our streets. It actually doesn’t belong in our society.
Homelessness doesn’t create better communities.
Not having people experiencing homelessness does.
The challenge is, when we think of homelessness, we see the person as the ‘homeless entity’ and don’t see the social issues beneath the stereotypes that keep us believing that speaking out against the person who is experiencing homelessness is actually making a difference.
That’s not how homelessness ends.
Homelessness ends when we as a society take better care of those who do not have the same privilege or same opportunities as we do to create better in their lives.
Homelessness ends when we stop targeting people and start addressing social issues that continue to create the very thing we don’t want on our streets or in our backyards, homelessness.
Because here’s the deal. Someone experiencing homelessness doesn’t want to be in your backyard. They don’t want to be on our streets. Being belittled and demeaned, ignored and shamed is not fun.
Years ago I got stuck in New York City because when I tried to fly out, the attendant noticed I’d entered on an expired passport. Yup. It was a surprise to me too but somehow, my expired passport had passed through two scanners and four different sets of hands as I exited Canada. And nobody noticed.
“Sorry, I can’t let you go home,” the attendant informed me as I tried to check into my flight. “You’ll have to go to the Canadian Consulate and get an extension so you can fly home tomorrow.”
Needless to say, I was the first person in line when the Consulate opened. Except. It didn’t matter. They didn’t give extensions and as my valid passport wasn’t lost (it was at home in Calgary), they couldn’t issue me a new one.
For 24 hours I waited for my passport to arrive. And while I waited I aimlessly wandered the streets of NYC. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything but wait for my passport and hope it got there without incident.
I eventually made it home but not without feeling traumatized by the whole incident. Yes, it was my mistake that lead to my being stuck in New York but there were a whole bunch of contributors to the saga of my not being able to make it home as planned.
Now, imagine if you made a mistake and the penalty was losing your home. Maybe you lost your job and didn’t have any savings. Maybe your spouse left you and cleaned out your bank account. Maybe, in the process, you got to feeling so badly about yourself and your life, you turned to substances to numb your pain. Believe me, I drank a fair amount of wine while I waited for my passport to arrive if only to quell my fears, no matter how unrealistic, that I’d never make it home.
See, people aren’t homeless because they aren’t willing to change, or to address their mistakes, or let go of the substances that are helping them cope. They’re homeless because the resources they need to create change in their lives are not easily/readily available. Like the Consulate office that didn’t provide passport extensions, doors keep closing in their face, and despair keeps rising with every ‘no’. Eventually, the despair outweighs their hope and they sink listlessly to the ground, letting go of any hope they’ll make it out of the darkness that is homelessness. Getting up again becomes harder and harder until one day, up is no longer an option. Staying down just hurts less.
And that’s the challenge. The longer someone remains in homelessness, the greater the impact on their resiliency, health and mental well-being. Not only must they face the challenges of finding their way home, they must deal with the mental and health issues that have arisen because of long-term exposure to the toxic stress and trauma of homelessness.
Homelessness hurts. People. Families. Communities. Society.
Let’s stop blaming the people and start doing the things that ensure people don’t fall through the cracks because there are lots of exists leading away from the danger of homelessness before they fall.
Let’s stop blaming and shaming the people. Let’s start looking at our systems and how we can make them better so they open doors, not close them.
Let’s ensure our social services are deep enough and rich enough to give those with limited options enough supports so that if they do fall into a hole, they have enough resources to climb out before they get trapped in homelessness.
Let’s speak up to create a more fair and equitable society where those on the margins don’t get locked out of possibility for a better life simply because they never had the coin to pay the entrance fee to a better future in the first place.