Homelessness: what’s the right response?

Over the weekend, mixed with the harrowing coverage of the loss of soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan, and for news cycle reasons I’ve inadequate information to understand, the fate of London’s homeless population prior to the 2012 Olympics was discussed on television and in print. The organising committee of the London Games had apparently committed itself to ensuring that no one would be sleeping rough on London’s streets by the time the world’s elite athletes arrived. The question of the weekend was whether this goal would be achieved and at what price, both economic and in terms of human dignity.

For a number of years Londoner’s have been asked by charities to  refrain from giving money to homeless people. Doing so would, we were assured, only encourage the sort of self-destructive drug and alcohol fueled behaviour that led to these poor souls being in this pitiful position and would, furthermore, reduce their incentive to seek help.

Drugs, alcohol, victims, pity, and much more left unsaid, seemed sadly to sum up the existence and outlook for the people living literally and metaphorically on the sidelines of this bustling metropolis. And yet, no matter how compelling the logic of the argument to pass on by, I cannot be the only Londoner to feel a deep sense of unease each and every time I do as the experts have told me. To wonder what, if anything, can be offered to people who seem to prefer the gutter to the apparent relative comfort of hostels for the homeless.

Understanding behaviour and choices so different to those of the mainstream can be hard and so it was with great interest that I read, a paper about street youth in Toronto, submitted to the journal some months ago and published in the June issue.

http://mh.bmj.com/cgi/content/abstract/35/1/19

The authors describe a web-based storytelling project, involving street youth and professional writers, that encourage homeless young people to share their perspectives on their own experiences.

The researchers identified “an ‘arc of experience’, that ranges from living with abuse and despair, leaving home, living on the street, experiencing a crisis or turning point, accessing services and gradually moving away from street life toward self-sustaining independence and security. This arc of experience includes the stories of youth who have transitioned away from the street as well as those still facing homelessness” The authors conclude that the project “provided an important, creative outlet for the youths, and increased understanding of the challenges, stigma and resilience of homeless youth.”

Well it certainly increased mine and I can only hope that those working out how to achieve the goal of no one living on the streets of London by 2012 will read this paper and other work like it. Because after reading this paper, and the stories told by these youth, the words ‘drugs’, ‘alcohol’, ‘victims’ and ‘pity’ just don’t do them justice. Given their own voices these young authors draw on a much richer vocabulary to describe their lives, their hopes and their dreams. In drawing up policies to address their needs it is this vocabulary that policy makers need to refer.