June 29, 2017 by Cláudia
Homelessness has been a major core concern of my life in the last years, I would say probably the biggest one and one that I definitely want to further and develop into some sort of project. There was no inspiration or role model for me in this case, no one that opened my eyes. It started as an emotional response: every time I saw someone homeless my heart would clench and I would get the urge to look away because to look into that person’s eyes was too painful to take. Later I started thinking about it in a more rational way and realized that it was not fair that I was born into a family that provided for me and some people ended up alone in the streets. I started feeling guilty because of my privilege. It just wasn’t fair how I was getting so many opportunities and other people were born into addiction, violence and delinquency. There are of course a million different situations but it is inevitable to acknowledge that a bad family environment will more likely result in homelessness than a more stable one. Of course we have a choice, but we can never know how we would choose if we were in a different situation and I have no idea where I would have ended up in if I had to go through a drug addiction, sexual abuse or just being on my own without any family support. For a long time everything that I did made me feel guilty – why do I get to go to the movies when people don’t have beds? Why do I get to study? – but now luckily my mindset is changing and I just really want to do my best and better some people’s lives.
A big barrier that has slowed me down in terms of acting in this field is how many misconceptions, stigmas and prejudice are associated with homelessness. Because it is something that sadly not a lot of people care about – at least people around me – I’ve heard a lot of objections to what I want to do. I would be talking to someone on the street and my mom would get angry at me or a friend would become super uncomfortable because I am acting “strange”. People I love and respect will say very insensitive things and this is probably the most discouraging part. But this journey has not come without small victories, such as raising a bit of awareness in the people that are around me and hopefully on the Internet.
Awareness is the first step to tackle homelessness and that’s why it is important to talk about it and try seeing it from as many different angles as is possible. So here go some of the questions and objections from people around me and my responses.
1. But homeless people are drug addicts.
Well, first of all, there are so many different reasons that can lead someone to homelessness such as a bad family situation, mental health disturbances, economic difficulties, unemployment, loneliness and addiction, which is obviously a big factor. As with everything, we cannot assume what someone has gone through and if someone is dealing with drug addiction we shouldn’t assume anything about that person except that they are struggling.
Many people that live on the streets have suffered serious trauma, such as abusive relationships, sexual assault or the death of family and friends. To struggle with drug addiction is not and should not be an indicator of bad character or even of a personal choice. In extreme situations of despair, we would do things that we would never consider in a healthy state of mind. Also, many times the addiction starts so early that the person is not capable of making conscious decisions and then the problem gets too massive to control. Another thing we should consider is that people may have grown up in an environment where drug use was banal thus it is the only reality that they know and will mimic in adult life.
The big takeaway of this I hope is that every case is different and personal and every single person had a different life story so the only way to understand how someone ended up homeless is to ask and listen. To make assumptions about what someone has gone through is just furthering the isolation and incomprehension of what homelessness means and involves. Drug addiction doesn’t mean the person doesn’t deserve compassion, it just means that the person needs help. It means there was a conjunction of unfavourable conditions and that someone is in deep suffering. It shouldn’t make us look at another person as if they were something less or something other than human. Dealing with homelessness can bring a lot of heartbreak but it is my strong belief that everyone deserves a chance at rehabilitation. Drug addiction is just one of the many barriers that we will encounter and not an insurmountable one.
2. One time I tried to help someone homeless and they were rude/ didn’t want my help.
I understand that this can be discouraging because sometimes people come with good intentions and are misunderstood or just get a bad reaction they weren’t expecting. And as with everything, it is extremely unfair to treat the part as a whole and one individual should not have the pressure to represent a whole group of people. A bus driver harassed me the other day and yet it would be ridiculous to assume every bus driver is inappropriate. A lot of times, homeless people have nothing in common with each other except their unfortunate situation. They probably don’t even form a group because there is no group coherence and there’s little solidarity or unity. But if homelessness was a group it would be an extremely heterogeneous group and where you can find everything – kindness, humour, rudeness, bitterness, calmness, restlessness… I have engaged with many homeless people and every experience has been different and unique.
That said, I have to acknowledge that talking to homeless people is not the same as talking to neighbours or coworkers – there is a weariness, sometimes alienation, sometimes inappropriate reactions, sometimes even violent reactions. But let’s be fair and at least try to understand where those come from. It’s impossible to determine how each one of us would react in a certain situation but we can at least try to imagine and I cannot imagine a more maddening situation. Just picture living on the street, with no comfort, hygiene or privacy, having to beg for money to survive and facing rejection in a capacity that in no other situation we’d have to endure. Not talking to other human beings for days, even weeks, having people turn their faces away from you. People with their comfort, their lives, their friends – things you can’t aspire to have. Not caring about career, hygiene, politics or education because your life is too precarious for that to make sense. To live in a loop, where every day is almost the same. To be consumed by loneliness. To see people constantly walk by with family, romantic partners and friends and to feel like there is no one who cares about you.
I try to imagine but I know I can never feel exactly what it is like.
But I would go mad too.
A big cause of homelessness is mental disturbances but I would argue it also becomes a consequence of it. One of the biggest problems is how isolation makes people detached from what is socially acceptable or not. The extreme detachment that comes from being alienated from society may cause some behaviours that we find surprising or off-putting.
But even more than that, to be nice should not be a requirement to have basic human rights. To have a home, a job and mental health support should be available to every single person, regardless of their friendliness or kindness.
3. I worked for my money and I don’t want to give it up.
To give money is not the only nor the best way to help. Most people have concerns about where the money goes and a lot of times homeless people will make up stories, frequently regarding made up relatives that need money for something urgent. So it is understandable that there is a reluctance to give money to people that you are unsure if you can trust. The fear that we are being fooled because of our good intentions is, I think, the biggest impediment for people to help.
There are other ways you can help if you don’t feel comfortable giving money and the most important one is talking. As I mentioned, these people spend days and days without human interaction so the most precious gift you can give is a couple of minutes of your day. Asking the name, looking someone in the eye, listening to a story can make a homeless person feel human again, make their day and it doesn’t cost anything.
Other than that, a good habit is to give the food and clothes directly instead of giving the money. Alternatively, you can ask if the person needs something specific (medication, a bag, some socks etc.) and give that. Everything helps to make their lives more bearable and even though we can’t save everyone o our own, it will make a big difference in someone’s life.
More on homelessness:
P.S.: I am actually trying to develop a project to bring awareness to homelessness so if you are interested in this issue please comment below because I would love to discuss some ideas and hear some opinions.