There are many assumptions around homelessness. These assumptions are often cast with a specific ideological perspective and an array of biases. Many assume that if you are homeless, then you must have made a grave error in your life. It’s not uncommon for those assumptions to include the traditional thoughts of addiction, drugs, gang life, prostitution, and being the typical outcast. Let’s not forget, that there are those who believe that the homeless are directly and indirectly responsible for their plight. The most common assumption is, that homeless individuals are lazy, insufferable, unaccountable, and incapable of maintaining any semblance of normalcy.
There is one absolute truth, no one wakes up with a yearning desire to become homeless. Homeless individuals are born with the same innate desires, temperaments, and beliefs that we are all inherently born with. There are a countless number of homeless individuals who have achieved the highest and loftiest of life’s accomplishments. It’s not uncommon to meet a homeless individual who’s obtained a formal education; been a former owner or manager of a business; and who’s owned a home. Homeless individuals are no different than you and I. There are homeless individuals who continue to take pride in their personal appearance and hygiene. It’s not uncommon to meet a homeless individual who continues to strive for success and life beyond impoverishment.
The media has perpetuated the myth that homelessness is a choice. It associates homelessness with a lack of personal drive, ambition, and motivation. It often exploits those who are homeless by perpetuating false narratives and claims of what it means to be destitute. Moreover, the myth influences the general impression that homelessness is a choice. As such, the impression fuels a community filled with apathy and indifference.
Homelessness is driven by a number of factors including: housing scarcity, poverty, domestic violence, divorce, sudden or unexpected death of a spouse, financial hardships and restraints, economic downturn, and of course, the physical and mental health of the individual. While there are a number of factors that may lead to homelessness, the greatest obstacle of those who are homeless, is society itself.
Chronic homelessness has a profound effect upon the life of the individual. It’s not uncommon for those who are homeless to have a severe mental health condition, but a majority of researchers acknowledge that it is difficult to determine whether the mental health condition perpetuated the issue of homelessness or the opposite. It is without a doubt that homelessness can exacerbate and accelerate a preexisting mental health condition. Yet, what about those who had no previously known underlying mental health conditions? Are they more apt to develop a mental health condition being chronically homeless? Chronic homelessness can challenge the healthiest of individuals. Research has indicated that chronic homelessness can have a profound effect upon an individual’s physical mind and body. It’s thought to be a combination of factors that begins to gnaw at the individual. Over time, the daily struggle to survive and the stressors of living on the streets begins to have a dire effect on their perceptions and worldviews. Gradually, the health and wellbeing of an individual begins to decay, through the influences of living day-to-day on the streets. The daily grind and struggle to survive begins to erode at the consciousness and intellectual integrity of the homeless person. It’s not only the individual’s personal relationship to their environment, but being caught up in a similar environment of others. It’s witnessing a variety of atrocities and human depravity taking place on a daily basis. It’s the feelings and emotions of being rejected and subjected to a standard of life not suitable for any life form. The substandard living conditions are forced upon them day-after-day and week-after-week. The hardships begin to take a toll on the strongest of minds and bodies. It’s this sort of environment that can play havoc with the healthiest of minds and bodies.
The plight of homeless individuals are further eroded by the very system that should be there to protect them. In a majority of the free world, homelessness remains a crime and an illegal act. Terry Skolnik, Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa, has indicated that the judicial system of Canada continues to perpetuate the stigmatization of those who are homeless. In Professor Skolnik’s article with the Journal of Law Equality, it is obvious that the judicial system continues to offer a blind eye to the welfare of those who are homeless. In Canada, “courts have rejected homelessness as a ground of discrimination in Canadian constitutional law. Judges have concluded that homeless people are not a protected class…” The Canadian system does not guarantee that an individual will receive adequate housing, financial support, or advocacy. In the United States, laws and public policies have been devised as an intentional and blatant form of discrimination. A glimpse into the American judicial mindset is offered through an article by Nazish Dholakia, Senior Writer, Vera Institute of Justice for Forbes. In Dholakia’s article, he explains that there are “Laws that bar people experiencing homelessness from sitting, sleeping, or resting in public spaces… Some laws prohibit people from living in vehicles. Other laws turn loitering, asking for money, and even sharing food with people into offenses punishable by fines or arrest. In many cities, public restrooms are not available overnight—or at all— yet cities prohibit public urination and defecation.”
We know that homelessness is rooted in extreme poverty and inability to find proper accommodations. According to the United Nations (2023) it’s not only about obtaining housing, but it is the ability to find “stable, safe, and adequate housing.” It is not uncommon for governments to mask the issues of homelessness with a salve, offering temporary and unsafe housing.
So, what is the responsibility of those serving in the field of mental health? Is it our responsibility to advocate on behalf of those who have fallen victim to the clutches of the world? What is the responsibility of a mental health practitioner?
The field of mental health can do better by the side of those suffering. We can do better by offering pro bono services; volunteering as a therapist in homeless organizations and veterans organizations; and advocating on behalf of our fellow human.
We can do better! We can do better by the side of our fellow human! We can advocate were there is a need for advocacy. We can demand change through our legislative bodies and through our professional organizations.
At the moment, being homeless remains a criminal offense. It’s this sort of mindset that will further perpetuate the stigmatization and stereotypes of those who are homeless.While the judicial bodies frame laws and ordinances on preventing and punishing those who are homeless, it’s within their approach that the homeless are being underrepresented and underserved. Perhaps as a society, we should seek to reintegrate rather than to segregate.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA