How to “solve” “homelessness:” Diction and a social problem.

It was a rainy night. Bob heard a commotion outside his third floor apartment and opened the blinds to look down at the street. Two people were huddled in alcoves of closed businesses. Bob thought to himself: Who are these people? Why are they not inside? 

One of these people was a man. Bob didn’t know him, but his name was John. John huddled next to his shopping cart full of – what Bob thought was – garbage. He looked dirty and disheveled in his worn overcoat and layers of sweatpants. 

The other person was a woman. Bob didn’t know her either, but her name was Jane. Jane covered herself in a pile of clothes from the broken suitcase that she carried around. She was hoping the wind would die so she’d stay dry. She could have put-on more of the clothes, but she preferred the coat and dress in case she could attract a date, and be invited somewhere warm.

Bob knew none of this. He saw people that needed help, but he didn’t know how to help them. He saw they needed support, but felt it wasn’t his duty. And as rain pelted his window he realized there was something obvious they both did not have: a roof over their heads. “Yep. That will solve the problem. They are homeless. They need a home.” He agreed with himself, closed the blinds and went back to watching TV. 

Had Bob known them, he might have thought something else. John was a schizophrenic. He was off his medication and chose not to sleep in one of the many beds offered him because he was paranoid of the government and none of the shelters would allow his shopping cart to enter. Despite his limited and mobile space, he was a hoarder and felt comfort in acquiring things. He’d rather be outside than to lose his “stuff.” 

Jane was in a much different situation. Jane had been a beautiful young girl who enjoyed partying. She was introduced to addictive drugs and in the past decade she had lost contact with those she loved and had found herself in progressively worse circumstances to acquire her drugs. Each time chipped away at her self-esteem. As Bob looked at her now, she was at a low point. She needed drugs and needed to have a “date” to pay for them. While shelters were available, none would allow her to “work” out of it. So Jane remained on the street. 

None of this is Bob’s fault, except that from the comfort of his home he chose to give them the label of “homeless” rather than investigate or think on it further. That label of homeless has stuck and it is widely used throughout the world. It is, simply, a distraction. It is a “bandaid” used by privileged people, warm in their homes to group-together a whole suite of social problems so-as to simplify their view of the world. “Homeless” is a word. And words have power. Once we all agreed that they are “homeless” it only followed that the solution should be to provide homes. It is a logical but unsound solution. 

Had Bob looked down at the two and (instead) recognized that neither had TVs, and, in this alternate universe, the term TVless was used to group them together. Then the equivalent and equally inappropriate solution to this social problem would be to provide them all TVs.  

Herein lies the heart of the problems. And there are two. One is diction, (how we use words); and the other is the very social problem that we want to help, but are woefully misdirected. 

Before I go further, if you’re wondering “why now?”, here is my motivation. As a firefighter, I know first-hand that we need to be able to employ various strategies to solving problems. We always have to be aware of the consequences and danger of “tunnel vision.” Tunnel vision can result in us continuing with a strategy despite the overwhelming evidence that it is either not working, or not as efficient as switching to an alternative strategy. The same thinking can be applied to our overall approach to this social problem, regularly referred to as “homelessness.” We’ve been providing homes for homeless for decades and the problem is getting worse. Now is the time to take a step back, reassess the situation, figure out why it’s not working and (probably) choose a different strategy. 

I got to know the “homeless” problem first hand in Vancouver, and now that I’ve returned to (just outside of) Victoria, I see the problem is quickly growing here. But more frustrating is the public’s sheltered and privileged misunderstanding of the situation and the ineptitude of current municipal governments in dealing with it. Frustratingly, we see the same politically-safe measures being put in place that have been tried without success elsewhere. With our current strategies and understanding it is a losing battle, with increasing distrust and dislike amongst all the stakeholders. 

It is a losing battle” – perhaps an unnecessary metaphor, but an appropriate segue  here. One of the consequences of diction – of labelling so many social problems as “homelessness” – is that we hear slogans like “end homelessness.” It is as absurd and as misdirected as a “war on terrorism.” You are setting-out to fail, when you define your enemy as an intangible concept. If this is a problem that we need to “win,” it is impossible when we think of it as we do.

So diction is the first problem. We are lazy with language. We love assigning new meanings to existing words instead of finding a better fitting word. Take “love” for example. It has more meanings than we can count. The term “homelessness” is the result of privileged people, (like Bob) who want to compartmentalize the problems, and feel comfort in knowing they don’t share the same problem, by finding a way to define them as “other” than themselves. The easiest way, after seeing them on the street in situations one would prefer not to be, is to think “I have a house. These people do not. I am not these people. They are without homes. They are homeless. I am not.” 

The assignment of the term homeless has run its course. It is obsolete and a distraction from the true problems. 

There are, however, pragmatic reasons for grouping the many social problems into one. And that is: If we can find a broad-scope solution that addresses them all at once. But this is my point: we have not and we’ve invested enough time and helped too few people.

This brings me to the second problem, which happens to be a whole suite of problems. The irony here is I am going to break down “homelessness” into five common problems, which is better, but is still “grouping” unlike people for the sake of ease and better directing resources. Keep in mind, this isn’t an exercise in perfection, but instead one of finding a better strategy to deal with our growing social problems.

Group one: The mentally-ill and schizophrenic. There are a huge number of people dealing with mental illness and schizophrenia on the streets. This problem increased dramatically when governments stopped funding the various “mental hospitals” around the province. In most cases, these people simply need their medication and they need help in administering the medication and continuing their medication. With help, most of these people can return as fully-functioning members of society. I’m starting with a tricky one, because you shouldn’t be comfortable with the thought of officials forcing medication into someone, and then having them make life-altering decisions while on medications. I don’t know how to proceed legally or morally in this manner, but judges and lawyers can figure that out. Many people whom I encountered in this group refused shelter because a) they were paranoid, b) they also hoarded and weren’t allowed to bring all of their items with them, or c) they had also developed addiction problems and chose to get high rather than go to the shelter (for which you must be sober.) While everyone could benefit from a roof over their head, no number of roofs is going to replace the medication and the support needed to help them recover. And if you insist on the housing then make it a mental hospital rather than low-income housing or a shelter. 

Group two: Drug and Alcohol addicts. Unfortunately, the general public tends to see this as the primary group within “homelessness.” It’s unfortunate because with that designation comes the stigma and sentiment that “they did it to themselves,” which lacks compassion and serves to undermine efforts to move forward. However, it is seldom wrong to believe most are addicted to drugs and or alcohol because all of the groups that find themselves on the street are more regularly exposed to, and thus more likely to try elicit, and addicting drugs. Furthermore, at that state they are less likely to have the support networks available as would others that may prevent them from compounding their problems. A whole other essay could be written on street drugs and solutions to the growing problem. The problem is complicated enough to require education, changes to the legal system, more public spending on support and a huge number of people willing to do that (sometimes heart-breaking) work. So instead of going into all of that, I’ll quickly point out that they need a combination of the above. But, I can’t imagine a case where providing an addict a home is going to solve their drug problems. But again, if you’re fixed on structures, provide more walk-in clinics specializing in drug addiction and build more rehab centres. Particularly ones that are equipped to take-in known criminals….which happens to be our third group.

Group three: Criminals. Let’s face it: Some people are down-and-out and commit crimes as a means of survival or as a last resort. Others commit crimes because they are criminally-minded people. Some of them are on the streets. Maybe you want to call them mentally-ill, and more often than not they are addicted to something, but the reason I list them as a different group is because they require a different strategy. They need to be removed. All of the other strategies exist in some form right now, either as trials or as existing-but-underfunded solutions and all of them are undermined by the criminals who prey on other “homeless” people, dishearten volunteers and social workers, establish fear of the “homeless” in the greater population and, most importantly, prevent others from obtaining safety – which is of paramount importance for the other groups, and the subject of the next group. Prisons are for people who are to be removed from society. Most of those people can be enrolled in restitution and restorative justice programs and become productive members of society. Others must simply be removed. 

Group four: The vulnerable. Some (and I can’t help but think specifically of women), have found themselves in cascading circumstances that have stripped their internal self-worth, and become victims of others. These people, above all else, need safety. A roof is a good place to start, and in my experience I know there are many women’s shelters, and very few women have to sleep outdoors. But it’s not the shelter alone that will help the situation. Most have nurses, volunteers and doctors who work exclusively within the shelter, but it is not enough. Once outside, cycles are continued. This group needs safety first, then a massive amount of support and education and training. They need to be linked to other supportive individuals to reestablish meaningful relationships and self-worth. I know, you’re thinking “easier said than done,” but again, I’m not going to narrow-down such an enormously complicated social problem into a single solution, but rather point out that safety and trusting relationships are something that isn’t provided by a simple roof. 

Group five: The socially-disenfranchised. Some people want to be “homeless” or at least want to be separated from the greater society. Whether it’s distrust, or a result of some long-established belief that they didn’t belong, this group has the potential to be dangerous and can find themselves within the criminal or mentally ill group. However, they are different in that they certainly don’t need homes, as they often willfully left homes, or at least that way of living. Instead, these people need a sense of community. They need to take part in work that benefits others, and they need to feel the safety and inclusion created through relationships. They need others to value their contribution so that they can learn to value themselves as part of society. All the aforementioned groups would benefit from this societal-togetherness, but what makes this group stand out is that they could immediately become assets to their community on the street. However, the reasons for being in this group are so individualized that it would be hard to focus any attention to this group as a whole. Sometimes these groups make up visual minorities, people from broken homes, or those who have been alone long enough to have damaging views of society and the people around them. This group would simply benefit from more volunteers and citizens simply walking by and saying hi. A gesture with enormous benefits as it acknowledges existence within the same space and time – which happens to be “community.” In the best case scenario, social workers recruit them for a project that benefits their community. As with other groups, the true solution is far too complicated to address here. But a roof isn’t the solution.

I will offer one broad, but concrete solution that could benefit each group: Subsidized and standardized daycare. I left a career in teaching dismayed that if you ranked students as they entered the K-12 school system, more often than not, they would be ranked in the same order when they left after grade 12. Essentially, the student behind socially or academically when entering the school system was still behind the group in grade 12. What happens to kids in early life has a direct relationship to what happens in their life as adults. The benefits of subsidized daycare are this: Mothers have the option to return to careers, thus reducing the gender gap in pay, and increasing female roles in the community, which has a long term benefit towards parity in gender roles and respect. Students from unsafe homes will be fed the same healthy foods as their peers. They will be read-to and develop social skills at the same rate as well. They will enter the school system closer to being equal, and thus the opportunities available to graduating students are extended to a group that would otherwise be left behind. This one act has the potential to help more people than any other one thing we can do. The only reason it hasn’t been done is the return in investment could be greater than 12 years. (The time it takes for students to graduate). In those 12 years any politician supporting the change likely won’t be around to see it come to fruition and it could be political suicide as the major expenditure will have no return on the books by the time of reelection – something opposition parties would point-out. There needs to be more public support towards establishing this betterment in early-life. If you do nothing else to help the problems mentioned above, support standardized and subsidized daycare (and an increase in education spending) by requesting it of your local politicians.

Whether you agree with me or not on my groupings or my belief that building shelters and houses is not working, my real point is that we have approached the problem by being linguistically and cognitively lazy by giving several problems one label, assigning that label a measurable outcome (people outside vs people inside) and trying to find solutions to the label and not the actual problems. And by writing this (in hopes it is shared so that we can view these problems separately and find better-fitting solutions) I am trying not to be linguistically or cognitively lazy. And in that, I hope you can agree.

So, whether you totally or partially agree, or if you just think this is a valuable contribution to the discussion occurring and needing to occur around these issues, please share. And remember, this is a mental-exercise: a need to change the way we think. The first steps in all of this are compassion, knowing you can make a difference and knowing that it is together that we’ll solve these problems.

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