On Homelessness and Compassion

Typically I don’t get fired up about online conversations. I’m busy (aren’t we all?), I have actual conversations to attend to, and I prefer not to be drawn too far down the infinitely deep well of digital discourse. But recently, a question on QuoraShould homeless people be allowed to have children? — provoked me into a lengthy rant:

I have been working with homeless and disadvantaged populations for a long time. Most people who talk about the homeless don’t actually know anyone who is homeless, nor have they been homeless themselves. Most conversations about homelessness arise from perceptions gleaned from the media or from assumptions about what homelessness is. In these conversations, assigning the term “homeless” is a very deep judgement usually attached to moral issues (i.e. homeless people are homeless because of some type of personal failing).

Among the homeless people I know, few are permanently “homeless” in the sense that they always sleep out (under a bridge, say, to use the general stereotype). Of those who do sleep out, every one of them (that I know) is suffering from a serious, debilitating mental illness (and, usually, an addiction as well, as a means to manage the symptoms of mental illness and to manage the rough treatment received from others).

I live and work in Vancouver, Canada, where our homeless population is among the largest in North America. Most of the “homeless” people that I know do find shelter once in a while. Sometimes they sleep out (usually in the summer), and sometimes they find an apartment, shelter, or emergency bed. And, of course, most are seriously burdened by mental health issues, trauma, and other kinds of barriers to health and employment. A few are voluntarily homeless; most are searching for safe and consistent shelter (which can be hard to find, and which can be hard to keep, especially if your mental illness provokes you to kick in the wall once in a while).

So, in this context, what does “homeless” actually mean? Sleeping out always? Sometimes? Living on the streets? Spending days on the streets and nights in a shelter? We don’t usually make these distinctions, or try to understand the continuum of homelessness. Instead we apply the general label, as though homelessness is a state of being, a defined characteristic of a sub-type of the human species. Ultimately, “homeless” becomes an objectified term in which people are placed beyond human value and our range of empathy.

It sounds trite, but “homeless” is what you and I would be in a couple of months without a paycheck. People come to homelessness in all manner of ways, and to collectively label these folks does much harm — and not only to them, but to ourselves also. When we get to the point that we are ready to assign this label to an entire swath of humanity, and then to entertain questions about what they should and should not be allowed to do (have children, for example), we are about two steps away from the darkest and most destructive parts of human nature.

And when we make arguments that hide our judgement behind a facade of social consideration (that homeless people should not be allowed to have children, for example, in “the interest of the safety of the children”), we do exactly what our forebears did to the native Americans and to the First Nations people here in Canada: we decide that a group is incompetent in the most fundamental ways. Here in Canada we will be working through the terrible legacy of the residential schools for a very long time. These kinds of traumas take so long to heal, and we are so stubborn about not learning from them.

The history of forced sterilizations in Canada and in the United States should teach us something. Treating certain groups of people as sub-human is a persistent and greatly toxic impulse, but one that we can’t seem to move beyond.

Sure, homeless kids have big challenges. And their challenges are somewhat unique to their circumstances (consistent schooling, personal safety, exposure to gang culture). But the challenges of other kids are unique too. If you are willing to consider prohibiting the homeless from having kids, you should also consider prohibiting those who are obese (because the lifetime health risks for kids in families in which the parents are obese are about as great as those for kids in families with a history of homelessness). And, while you’re at it, you should also prohibit those who are depressed and/or who have a mental health problem (because the lifetime mental health risks for kids in these families are about as great as the mental health risks for kids in families with a history of homelessness). If we prohibit folks with mental health challenges from having kids, we’re talking about more than 25 percent of the population. If we then add in the folks who are obese (more than a third of the population), we’re talking about most of the population.

This is the direction these conversations go. Where do you want to stop?

Here’s what homeless kids and families need: empathy, support, resources, advocacy, shelter, food, health care, and a chance to make things just a little bit different. In the most foundational sense, isn’t that what you need as well? Isn’t that what we all need?

No one is exempt from human frailty, from trauma, from unexpected calamity and suffering. Sometimes these issues result in homelessness; sometimes they result in crippling addiction or depression; sometimes they result in family violence or personal despair. And sometimes, of course, these experiences yield transformation, as in the lives of many homeless people who move beyond that experience and find their way.

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