By Rachel Musson, Founding Director of ThoughtBox Education, an online curriculum for schools to encourage empathy, critical thinking and global tolerance.
What do you do when you walk past someone on the street? Pretend they’re not there? Give them money or offer a friendly smile? Wonder how they ended up there?
Homelessness is not a choice, and understanding that it could happen to any of us at any time is just one step in trying to support the ever growing numbers of homeless communities across the world. As economic pressures continue to bite; as welfare systems struggle to support the most vulnerable; as climate change and natural disasters rob people of their homes and civil wars force people to flee their lands, more and more people are finding themselves homeless and displaced…through no choice of their own.
However, there is a judgemental stigma attached to homelessness that is hard to shake off – and the negative way we collectively think and feel about homeless people in our communities across the world is unfortunately a large part of the problem. By reducing people down in our judgements, we are failing to see how suddenly and easily people can (and do) become homeless, and how we are all just a couple of steps away from being on the street ourselves.
Understanding how to support homeless communities does not start and end on the street – it begins much further back by trying to understand some of the root causes of homelessness and work to prevent them in the first place. The circumstances leading to homelessness are many: loss of employment, domestic abuse, relationship breakdowns, mental health issues, lack of affordable housing…the list goes on and does not take into account external forces causing high numbers of global displacement.
Whilst living for a while in Pokhara, Nepal, I was stuck by the large numbers of street children living rough on the banks of the Phewa Lake. Family break-down, poverty; urbanisation and overcrowding; dislocation through migration and civil war; child labour, loss of family members; exploitation by adults; emotional abuse or neglect, the rising number of street children remains a significant problem across Nepal. Hand-outs might be keeping these children alive, but when listening to some of the stories of why these children ended up where they were, it seemed clear how this level of hand-out charity was merely perpetuating the problem and supporting a negative cycle: the problems of homelessness were being soothed rather than solved.
If you choose to listen, you will hear the same stories from homeless people everywhere. I have heard them told time and again as I have travelled around the world: in Lima, Peru; in Arusha, Tanzania; in London, UK; in Kampala, Uganda. Esther Kidden, a refugee from Sudan, found herself fleeing from civil war to Kampala when she was nine years old to seek refuge with her mother’s sister, but consequently ended up on the streets following systematic abuse by this same aunt. A lack of social support and governmental aid meant that Esther’s choices were bleak. However, by sharing her story with people who stopped to listen, she was given a hand up (through a place at SINA, a social-innovation academy) and is now working on developing a street-kids rehabilitation centre, using her own experiences to support others. By listening, rather than judging, we are taking one very large step towards tackling the root causes of homelessness.
Although there are many organisations working in communities across the world to help displaced people to get back on their feet, many are still focusing on treating the symptoms of homelessness, rather than the cause. Understandable – these are not easy-fix issues, and offering material support (food, clothing, shelter) to someone rough-sleeping is a very positive first step in care. But it is not the only thing we should be doing and all of us have the chance to offer our support beyond this – without spending a penny.
“A hand up not a hand out” is a maxim used by many organisations supporting homeless communities; working to get people back on their feet and finding a new pathway in life. Moving beyond this, it is positive to see governments now recognising that many of the ripple effects leading to a rise in homelessness on our streets are pieces in the same jigsaw puzzle.
We as individuals can now help by working to remove the stigma associated with rough sleeping. Seeing the homeless, I mean really seeing them as fellow human beings; understanding that their story is just one or two moves away from our own, is a tremendous first step in offering support. Stopping, looking and listening to people’s stories goes a long way in supporting people on the streets, helping us to better understand where we need to channel our attentions in the wider community to try to prevent these stories from perpetually being re-told.
Treating the homeless as the problem is the problem, and so by listening and learning to empathise with some of their struggles – without judgement – we can begin to remove the negative stigma and come together to work on treating the causes (not just the symptoms) of homelessness.