I have encountered many people in my years of service to vulnerable and marginalized groups that persist on expressing venomous, toxic, and hateful ideas that all persons in homelessness simply need to take responsibility for their lives. They need to pull up their boot straps and move forward and they will then be worthy of inclusion. I have heard countless times that these pariahs do not deserve help as they have chosen this life and deserve nothing from us. Even good, well-educated men and women in leadership roles make vile statements without pause for the pain their tongues deliver. In Abbotsford, these careless words and ignorant ideas seem to flow freely through the halls of our civic government daily. On Wednesday Oct. 9, Abbotsford Community Services and BC Housing held a public meeting regarding their proposal to build a 21-unit facility to house homeless men in the downtown core. During the meeting, Abbotsford Mayor Bruce Banman stated in front of 100 or so community members that:
"Homeless people themselves have to want to be helped and show responsibility for themselves if they are going to deserve to be helped."
This is a statement he has made often over the past several months.
I know Bruce. We talk often and he is good man, he has a wonderful heart. He just needs to learn more about the complexities of these human beings; to move beyond these limited ideas and expressions which border on hate. I know he has the capacity to stand up and apologize for these ongoing statements grounded in deficient ideologies and a lack of knowledge. However he is not alone, we all need to learn to see these people with new eyes and fresh minds. We must tear down the walls that hinder our hearts from being places where compassion and empathy move freely beyond our myopic understandings. We must be open to radical new paradigms of community and inclusion that will push us further down the road to a healthier and brighter future.
What is being said when we make declarative statements of responsibility? Do we really understand what we are saying? Responsibility is understood as the state or fact of being responsible, answerable, or accountable for something within one's power, control, or management. If this is what responsibility is, how can anyone make such an arbitrary and cold statement in light of the truths that are known about homelessness?
Let the women who have suffered violence show responsibility for themselves if they are going to deserve to be helped. Violence against women is the leading cause of women's homelessness in Canada. Every year, violence and abuse drives over 100,000 women and children out of their homes and into emergency shelters. Many never make it to shelter at all. They live on the streets of our cities further victimized, raped, and exploited.
Homelessness is also frequently associated with a spectrum of traumatic family experiences, including abuse and family breakdown, foster care, youth pregnancy, and child development problems. Homeless adults typically have experienced sexual and physical abuse as children. Let the survivors of these traumatic family horrors take responsibility for themselves if they are going to deserve to be helped.
People living with mental health issues encounter a vast amount of hurdles to finding work, community, and are frequently isolated from friends, family and other valuable social networks, leaving them alone to land hard on our streets. However the people with broken minds must take responsibility for themselves if they are going to deserve to be helped.
Current social and governmental factors such as the expanding chasm between the rich and the poor, the alarming decline in affordable housing, the decrease in available services, supports, and many other integral social programs all make the situation worse. The homeless are somehow responsible for these factors and must take responsibility if they are going to deserve to be helped.
Do you hear the lunacy in thinking like this? Where is the compassion and mercy in thinking and speaking like this? We are not heartless machine , we are people; people who want to be loved and to love. Some people are hard to love. I get that. But we have the capacity to love, empathize and care bigger than we think possible. It lies inside of each of us to connect with the scary and unknown humans that live in the shadows of the status quo. Take the time to look deep inside your hearts and minds to find the doors that are preventing you from seeing further.
I am no fool. There is a tiny percentage of individuals who have found themselves in dismal situations due to a series of there own unfortunate choices, which have been made despite having multiple choices for alternative paths. However, no one can control whether or not they have mental health issues, grow up in abusive homes, or become victims of domestic violence. Most homeless people had no say at all in the situations which resulted in them being cast outside. The circumstances leveled upon them were far beyond their power, control, or management. They can not take responsibility for being thrown out and trampled upon. Declarative statements of responsibility are not fair assessments of these people and their current position in our society.
When control, power, or management is stolen away through a gamut of traumatic situations, busted social systems, and mental health issues, how can we make these folks accountable for these numerous catastrophes? The multiple tragedies faced by individuals living on the margins are further complicated by homelessness, which is in itself disempowering, painful, destructive, and unpredictable. It is in this pandemonium that there is little opportunity to reclaim personhood, control and clarity which is necessary to make healthier and richer decisions. They are barely recognized as persons let alone seen as having the capacity to make choice. There is so little our friends on the streets can take responsibility for nor are they even given many opportunities to claim responsibility.
Existing as a disempowered, disenfranchised person often leaves one feeling unworthy to be given responsibility of any kind because of where and how they live. This despondent type of thinking is reinforced hourly by how and what they eat, where they sleep, what they wear, and what they are called, etc. Every single day the ability to "take responsibility" and " make good choices" is eroded by almost everyone and everything that surrounds them.
To solve this crisis we must begin by acknowledging their personhood and including the marginalized in the decisions and actions that affect them. We must create predictable and safe environments that allow these neglected citizens to rebuild a sense of value and control in their lives. It is by renewing, rebuilding, and healing of these fragmented lives that long lasting change can happen. We need to stitch up the bleeding wounds of abuse, bind up the broken minds and hearts, and re-forge new civic and social systems that carry everyone forward. It is when the homeless are valued, recognized, and included that they can begin to take control and some responsibility for where they are today. Let us not speak in haste, shelling out harsh pointed statements of generality which hold so little truth. Instead let us open our hearts, ears and eyes to the bigger picture and find ways that we can help.