Yesterday, on Live & Learn, David Kanigan, the blog’s host, shared a beautiful story of a moment on the train into NYC where a woman surprised everyone with what she had to say. (Go read it. David’s writing is exquisite and the story is beautiful. Click HERE. )
He reminded me of an event we tried to launch here in Calgary several years ago in an effort to shift stereotyping of individuals experiencing homelessness.
At the time, I was the Director of Public Relations at a large adult singles emergency homeless shelter. I was also the founder and overseer of its art studio/program – and that’s where our story begins.
Creativity, the desire to spill words onto the page or cast them from a stage into the air, to throw paint at canvas, use our hands to mould clay and other objects or write music that stirs the soul is not relegated only to ‘the housed’.
Creativity does not discriminate. It flows everywhere, into and through everyone, including homeless shelters and those who use its services.
One of the collective experiences of individuals experiencing homelessness is the mocking and shaming they receive from those who do not understand the experience of homelessness.
It is debilitating. Harmful. Painful.
When visitors came to the shelter, they were always surprised by the art clients of the shelter created in the studio, often purchasing pieces for their homes, gifts, workplaces. There was always this moment when a visitor would look at the art and say, “A homeless person created this?”
It wasn’t meant to be derogatory but its unintentional consequence was that their comment highlighted the stigma and the misconceptions we hold of people experiencing homelessness — they are somehow less than human, devoid of creativity. Of grace. Of heart and soul. Of dreams. Of humanity.
We wanted to change that perception and decided to bring the creative expressions of those experiencing homelessness ‘to the people’. To those who every morning and evening rode public transit.
We worked hard (myself and another woman who was part of an initiative to support art-making within the sector) to find a way to convince the City that having individuals experiencing homelessness perform pop-up concerts on public transit, particularly the C-train and its many platforms throughout the city, was a good idea.
It never happened.
There was just too much resistance, and too many excuses why it was a bad idea from those who held the authority to give the idea the right stamps of approval it needed to be put into action.
Our resistance to shifting perceptions is harmful to those whose lives have been impacted by homelessness, poverty, addictions and other societal woes. It keeps us safe from changing, and it keeps those seeking to find change, in their place.
In the box we hold inside our minds of what it means to be ‘homeless’, we rigidly hold onto what we believe is true of ‘the other’ and lose the elasticity of thought necessary for our truth to live freely with the truth of others. We cling to labels, like ‘homeless’, as a means to keep from having to broaden our thinking to include more than just the one or two words we use to describe those whose lives are different than ours.
Homelessness is a state of living. It is not ‘who’ the person is. Everyone experiencing homelessness is first and foremost, a human being.
The presence of homelessness in someone’s life is an indication of the many things that have contributed to their finding themselves in that state — big system factors like lack of supports for mental health, addictions, poverty, education, jobs and lack of access to the programs that do exist. Lack of affordable housing. Lack of personal resiliency due to childhood trauma, divorce, abuse, deaths in the family, and a host of other social woes, we all experience, and for which most of us have the capacity to cope with — while some don’t, leaving them suffering gravely from its impacts and their inability to access supports in times of crises.
In all of it, the word ‘lack’ is prominent.
The lack of what individuals and families need to be able to thrive in society — not because they don’t want to, but rather, because the structure of so many of our systems act as barriers, not entryways. Bureaucracy and a belief ‘we know what’s best’ prevents people from gaining access to the supports they need to deal with life’s challenges.
There is no lack, however, of creativity, of vision, dreams, and most of all, humanity, in those experiencing homelessness.
There is only our lack of understanding that, when we paint people into boxes and stick labels that help us understand where we believe they’re at, we take away the very things they need to create better futures for themselves and their families. We take away their belief in their humanity.