Written by our Head of Community – Bella Combest
Poverty and homelessness are two of the most longstanding social issues of all time. And yet, there still seems to be very little public understanding around their roots causes. Like many people, I use to think that most individuals on the streets were there as a result of personal irresponsibility. I assumed drug addiction and lack of work ethic played a large part in the majority of people’s homelessness. It wasn’t until I started working at a homeless crisis center in university that I began to see things differently.
The people I met at the shelter shook my perspective and showed me an entirely new side of poverty in my city. Though the use of alcohol and drugs were prevalent, it became clear that the people I worked with had far more in common than substance abuse issues. Most of them struggled with anxiety and depression, often as a result of childhood trauma, as well as job insecurity, and lack of education, but the biggest commonality among people was relationship breakdown. Across the board, people felt unseen, insignificant, unworthy, and burdensome in the eyes of their community. They were often cut off from connection with loved ones and marred by the alienation they felt from society. This persistent loneliness then led to more destructive behaviors and a negative self image. It became clear that the drug abuse I characterized homeless people by, was largely a coping mechanism resulting from long term isolation.
After my change in perspective, I became endlessly curious about the deeper nuances of poverty, addiction, and homelessness. So I set out on a journey to uncover the truth, and what I found was very surprising. During my research, I came across study after study indicating that contrary to popular belief, the causes of long term instability, both financially, residentially, and emotionally, are all related to social exclusion.
According to psychologists today, people who experience a lack of communal support are significantly more likely to struggle with addiction as well as deprivation-level poverty. Shahram Heshmat, doctor of health economics and addiction explains: “we [as humans] are driven innately from birth for close human contact. To the degree that if we are deprived of this…we are emotionally deficient and extremely vulnerable” ^1
Unfortunately, as a culture, we tend to dehumanize and exclude the poor, either blaming and shaming them, or pitying and patronizing them. Both responses are equally detrimental in that they both diminish an individual to his, her, or their most basic needs and failings.
So instead of defining people by their vulnerabilities, we need to begin to see ourselves in the “other”. We need to understand and recognize our unifying humanity. We need to push practical “solutions” and problem solving proposals LESS and start building on connection and compassion more. Because at the moment, we are trying to cure a cold with a bandaid. Without restoring broken relationships and regaining community unity, all of our innovation and progress will be in vain.
So start today!
Here are 5 Simple ways you can help fight homelessness TODAY
1 – Educate yourself
Learn about the different causes of homelessness and poverty–always remembering that every situation is unique. A homeless person may be someone who lost their job, ran away from home, separated from a partner, or is suffering from depression or serious mental illnesses.
It is also important to educate yourself about the poverty and homelessness specific to your area. Different parts of the country and the world are affected by distinct issues that contribute to the imbalanced nature of wealth distribution. The historical, socio economic, and political trends of an area all impact the level and severity of local poverty. However, we are all still interconnected. A complex web of influencers from race, to labor markets, to housing, shape the causes and potential solutions of poverty, making it crucial to familiarize yourself with the dynamics that take place in your own community.
2 – Help dispel the stereotypes
Remain conscious of the assumptions common in our culture that perpetuate judgment and disconnection. Many times, when you dig deep enough, you’ll find that we as a society operate under the belief that poverty is largely a result of a poor work ethic or an insufficient moral character. This could not be farther from the truth, however, it is often easier to dismiss our social responsibility if we can blame the poor for their poverty.
Confronting our collective failings as a community is a difficult thing to face, especially when there isn’t always a clear way forward. This is why we need to start small. Even just engaging in discussion with others about poverty, homelessness, and social responsibility, will begin to deconstruct harmful frameworks that entice fear and misunderstanding.
3 – Remove barriers
The barriers that we experience between ourselves and other groups of people, whether socially or personally imposed, can have a huge impact on the health of a community. We walk through town with blinders on, interacting with the same people and doing the same things. This perpetual nature of our lives has the potential of creating a bubble experience–one where we reduce everything outside of our bubble to the simplest terms and most convenient definitions.
Therefore, it is crucial that we learn to reach out of our routine and speak to people who are different than us. Even making eye contact with an individual on the street can break down walls. Look for opportunities to listen to those outside your immediate circle or from different walks of life.
Remember, everyone has a story needing to be told and a voice needing to be heard.
4 – Respect people in poverty as individuals
Give people experiencing homelessness the same courtesy and respect you would accord your friends, family, or employer. Treat them as you would wish to be treated if you needed assistance. Because people experiencing poverty still have their own preferences, opinions, and ultimately CHOICE. One of the first steps in helping people is to see them as individuals with acting autonomies of their own.
As people, we tend to push our value sets on to others–judging them based on what we believe their choices should be. Not only is this dividing, but it is also patronizing. By doing this, we leave no room for people to create their OWN paths towards fulfillment. Everyone has the right to live their life by their own sets of goals and standards.
5 – Respond with kindness
We can make quite a difference in the lives of the homeless when we respond to them, rather than ignore or dismiss them. Try a kind word or simply making eye contact with a smile. Taking time to talk to a person in a friendly, respectful manner can give them a wonderful sense of civility and dignity. Kindness is a powerful weapon against isolation, depression and paranoia that many homeless people face.
However, it’s important to be patient and understand that your warmth might not be reciprocated at first or at all. Many people in poverty are living life in survival mode, which puts them in an extremely defensive posture. Therefore, it may be difficult for them to open up or respond in a friendly way. Imagine if your were living in an environment where you were constantly harassed, judged, or ignored, it would most likely prevent you from trusting the kindness of others.