I have been trying to formulate my thoughts about several trending issues that I am noticing in regards to homelessness in specific. The first being that there are many ways to help people, and all of which are good, but not all of them are beneficial. There a millions of ways to contribute and be a helper and before I began my volunteerism even I was encouraged to do some of the following:
-Bring an assortment of clothing directly to the people in need.
-Bring pillows and sleeping bags to people who were sleeping in cold weather.
-Give money whenever and wherever possible.
-Purposefully seek out those in need to do any of the above.
From my perception, it seemed like I was filling an obvious need. Someone was cold, here have a blanket. Someone was hungry, here have some food. Someone was thirsty, have some water. Need some money? Okay, have the five dollars sitting in my pocket because I probably would have spent it foolishly anyways. After careful examination I have come to conclude that all of these acts of kindness may be perpetuating the problem of chronic homelessness, and doing away with any dignity that said person may have. It’s not the material needs that need filling, it’s the needs of the heart and from my perspective the heart is something that can only be filled by the Lord.
The chronically homeless are some of the most resilient and resourceful people I have come to meet. The people I have met who do not suffer from debilitating mental illness, can tell me in one sentence, what agencies offer what, where a meal can be found every day of the week and who to speak to when there is a bigger and more pressing need. These folks know their communities and they know where to go to find whatever they need, so bringing blankets, and clothing to campsites is not only frustrating professional efforts, it’s also doing this:
This is a photo of a local homeless camp in my community.
It’s creating an enormous swath of garbage, that neither we can contend with, nor they. So in attempt to educate myself and other people, I would say do this:
-Donate your time to an established agency. Time is of the essence, Keep it simple, don’t complicate their lives with clutter any more than it already is. Give these people your time and your attention.
-Donate your material donations to charities that support the homeless in an Eden Model sort of way.
-If you must give to the homeless, be mindful about what you are sharing. Is it something that they can pack up easily and take with them? Is it lightweight and easy to manage? Does it produce a lot of waste? Is it something that is weather resilient? And if it is none of these things then send it to a supporting charity to be sold for profit and used in a more constructive way.
So what do the homeless need if it isn’t material possessions? and why not material possessions?
Many of the chronically homeless people lead unhealthy lifestyles, not all of course, but many of the people. To clarify, I mean that many of the population suffer from chemical dependencies, mental illness and overly dysfunctional lifestyles. Materialism isn’t a necessity for someone who is constantly on the move. Surviving is the most important thing, and finding means for which to cope with whatever devastating circumstances brought them to the streets. Many of the people who I have been blessed to meet are very private and it’s very difficult to draw them out. Others have survived so long outdoors and independently that becoming part of society again is a daunting task. It seems insurmountable to conform to societies standards of what is “normal”, and the rebellious nature of people who have lived without the various comforts of mainstream society is more enticing than to conform. This results in chronic homelessness.
What is it that people need that live so differently than you or I? To be poetic, I suppose I’d say “Love”. Love doesn’t have to be the act of giving stuff. However appreciated the items are initially, underneath we are all human and we just need to know that other people care and have an honest desire to build true friendships with us and be accepted no matter where we are in life. Friendship offers more dignity than any amount of money, clothing, food, or drugs can ever provide. Getting to know a person who is part of the marginalized population not only bridges the barrier between their world and ours, it opens up a door of opportunity for said person to see what a healthy relationship looks like and to realize that they are worth it.
The second would be “Hope”, which is seeded from meeting people who will meet them where they are at. It doesn’t take much to take away ones purpose in life. It can be having your children taken away because you can’t control your addiction. It can be the loss of a loved one. It can be the simple act of having close personal relationships destroyed by a chaotic lifestyle and being discouraged from producing new friendships. It can be the damaging effects of childhood abuse, or growing up separated from your family because you come from a cycle of abuse that spans generations. It can be the effects of colonization that plague so many of the aboriginal peoples in Canada, my own biological family included. Homelessness is not exclusive and has no boundaries for which it can be produced. The only way to truly know what causes it, is to get to know someone who is living it.
Housing is an important factor to consider but however great it sounds to us, it sounds confining and distasteful to those who are presented with it. Why is this? Well I’d say it has a thousand faces as well. Most people have experienced prejudice from those who are not homeless. They are ignored or treated poorly, called names and abused. Those who are offered a roof and some stability will take some time to adjust to it, specifically if it is someone who has lived outside for many years. Four walls is physically uncomfortable for these people. It’s not as great as you or I might imagine it would be. When I think of this, I think of a fellow who came into the shelter one night. He was an elderly man who had lived on the streets since the early 70’s in Greater Vancouver. He was so distraught and anxiety ridden about having to stay inside that he curled up into a ball in his bunk and wouldn’t eat. The only thing that kept him from walking out the door was the fact that he was still recovering from pneumonia and was too sick to spend time outdoors. And then there are those who thrive with the idea of a new opportunity and take off flapping and slowly find themselves falling from the metaphorical tree. The platform that they have jumped from is not a strong enough foundation to set them on a successful path. The good intentions of their hearts are outweighed by the destructive cycle that they are coming from and ultimately they too will return to their previous lifestyle.
Why is housing so important? Not only does it offer stability and safety, it encourages one’s health. People who live outdoors are stricken with many health related issues that come with poor lifestyle habits and being exposed the elements. Feet will often have blisters, develop fungus, ulcers, or have frostbite to name a few. Respiratory health is greatly affected and pneumonia and other infections will flourish due to poor nutrition, lack of proper sleep and effects of the elements. Mental health and substance abuse is highly likely due to circumstantial reasons. Heart attack and stroke risk increases for many of the same reasons. Stress will also cause a variety of issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, circulatory issues and anxiety. All of these health issues are easier to diagnose and managed when an individual is living in a safe place that offers the right supportive network. However, on the other side of the coin, without the housing option, rapport must be built with these individuals so that in the event that housing is not successful that someone will still be looking out for them. Someone will still need to care enough to know whether said person needs help, or has an emergency which brings me back to the point that a relationship of hope and love must be fostered.
Are there any people who successfully leave the streets and get healthy? Absolutely! With the right dose of TLC, housing doesn’t seem so scary, and eventually neither does clean time and learning how to interact with people. Many times, these people go on to become addictions counsellors, or mental health workers and give back to the communities from which they came from. Other times they find love, marry and have families. Sometimes the success involves being reacquainted with loved ones and family members, and the healing begins. Ultimately there is hope and lives can be changed.
These thoughts are merely the tip of the iceberg for the issue of homelessness and for me. I know that I need to learn more and as I do, I will continue to share my knowledge with others to bridge the gap and to aide in understanding between everyone, and specifically between those who do not understand the plight of the homeless person. With that, I leave you with this wonderful little TED CLIP that I found. I enjoyed it very much and eventually this is what I can envision for me.