Friday, January 12, 2007

Shifting the public perception of homelessness?

That the Calgary Committee to End Homelessness has kicked-off their ten year effort is laudable and inspiring. (Calgary Herald, Wednesday 10th Jan 2007) It will, no doubt, be supported at least in spirit by the majority of Calgarians, including me. I am loving that the leaders have created a vision that is bold; to "eradicate homelessness", because it will give me permission, for example, to send my imagination beyond just the usual solutions when I look for possibilities.

Bishop Henry and Ruth Ramsden-Wood both said on CBC Radio on Wednesday that what needs to change in order for this enterprise to be successful is a shift in the public perception of homelessness; I agree, if they mean we stop seeing "a bum" and instead start seeing a human being like us, and if we stop blaming the homeless person for the problem of homelessness and look in the mirror instead for the source of our discomfort.

What is the problem of homelessness? The challenge is complex, but a major factor that contributes to people being stuck where they are, or sliding into addiction, is their total disbelief in their own capabilities. This lack of confidence is magnified as long as "regular folks" make homeless people feel wrong, and we do; every time we cross the street to avoid, every time we look down our nose, every time we write angrily to the paper about "not in my back yard", every time we patronise with good advice, and every time we make them line up and justify to a front line worker their need for basics. In a very real sense, our complaining makes the problem even more real, with significant economic and human well-being knock-on effects.

Why will a lack of perception-shift lead to failure? Two reasons: Firstly, if we make this "all about them", as in any top-down change attempted in any organisational system, where the leaders are not "walking their talk", there will be objectors at all levels, with tons of rational, political or emotional reasons for not shifting and who will not be led-by-example to shift their own thinking. As long as a significant percentage of the public even secretly thinks that a possible solution will be "throwing good money after bad", the committee's efforts would result in "those homeless bums" being perceived as being "those housed bums" and the problem of homelessness will still be there, with a different name. Secondly, when would-be-homeless people are safely in their affordable or sheltered house or finally receiving the treatment that will allow them to contribute back to society, and they are thriving because of a micro loan that gave them a kick-start, we the masses will find someone else to blame for our problems; we will have learned nothing. That would be a shame.

So what can we ordinary folk do to start shifting our perspectives on homelessness? Here are ten ideas: (1) Get curious about any reactions you have (no matter how big or small) to a person you think is homeless. (2) Actively approach a panhandler and ask them about their dreams and ambitions, then see how yours are different or the same (3) Volunteer to serve a meal at one of the shelters, and notice what you are surprised at. (4) Try sleeping rough for one night, and imagine what that would be like if you had no home to bolt to locally if it got too cold or scary (5) Think of your life and imagine the chain of events that might lead to your own homelessness (remember to be grateful after this exercise) (6) Imagine to yourself what resources and resiliences must be called upon to survive on the street; even better, ask someone living on the street (7) Invite a homeless person home for dinner (8) Volunteer to serve a night shift in the drunk tank at the Drop-in Centre (9) Wander the streets for a day and do not spend a dime (10) For a thought exercise, imagine how it could be possible for someone currently homeless to become mayor of Calgary, and what that would be like.

It is all well and good for us to do some shifting and by "us" I include our neighbours who don't have a place to call their own, but what about the great men and women of the Calgary Committee to End Homelessness? I have no way of knowing what they know or not about homelessness and homeless people. My opinion is that if someone on that committee thinks that statistics and personal experience of panhandlers is enough knowledge, then they are not qualified to be on that team. I would love for that group to serve an evening meal in at least one of the shelters and share their experiences and impressions. I would love for them to speak to real street people and actually ask them what they want. I would love for Dermot Baldwin of the Drop-in Centre to be invited to that committee.

To echo the words of Mayor Dave Bronconnier, "It's time to end the blame game and start looking at long-term solutions"; yes, that includes looking at ourselves too.

Phil Durnford
Calgary, 12 January 2006

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