Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Lesson From The Homeless

Being homeless is horrible. It’s a state of being most of us could not fully imagine. It represents the absence of so many things that we take for granted, things we would need to lose in order to fully appreciate. I’ll cite a single example. We recognize that hunger can be a very pressing issue for this population, which it is. So why might a homeless person turn down a free meal? Because – as one of my clients told me when I offered to buy him lunch one day – there is a very limited availability of accessible and clean toilets for such as he, so he had to time his eating to ensure that he had a place to go when nature called. It’s a survival issue that had never occurred to me before – not simply access to clean toilets, but having to orient ones entire life around this access.

Homelessness is not pretty. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some positive aspects. What follows is no defense of homelessness, so please don’t read it as such. But personally, I haven’t yet experienced the situation that hasn’t offered something, if only a bit of wisdom about how or how not to live, of which I think this is a good example.

The homeless share. This is a generalization: there are certainly plenty of those that never share, as well as those that only take. But it holds quite often, particularly in comparison to the day-to-day habits of the general population, that the homeless share what they have with their fellows. This is especially true of the young homeless. They share meals, they share cigarettes, they share their drugs and their alcohol. They share their tents, their money, their bus tokens, their resources and contacts, their clothing and, on cold nights, maybe the warmth of their sleeping bags and bodies. Sometimes, they share the corners where they panhandle.  And very, very often, once they’ve found a place to live, they share that too.

Ironically, this home sharing presents a challenge to programs like the one I work for, Toronto’s Streets to Homes program. We employ a “housing first” philosophy, which basically means that instead of attempting to make our clients “housing ready” before setting them up in apartments, we aim to get them in a place, with a key and a lease, right away, then tackle whatever other challenges they may face. And wouldn’t you know it – it turns out that one of the traits that keeps many of our young clients “not ready for housing” is that they are quick to open their doors to others.

In our modern world, living isolated between four walls is the norm. We have smaller and smaller families, having evolved from the notion of multi-generational clans sharing living space, to the ideal of the nuclear family in its detached, self-contained house. Every step up the social and economic ladder means more space between us and our neighbors, and more private space even within the walls of the family home. Rather than sharing the village well with our neighbors, we aim for a status at which everyone in a household has an entire bathroom suite to him or herself. We aim for more walls rather than more companionship.

I suspect that most of us, as much as we long for the modern ideal of privacy and autonomy, sense that there is something not quite right about it. In our hearts – dare I say, our souls – we long to be more communal, to be more in the presence of others. But we’ve lost the taste and feel for that. It makes us uncomfortable to be too much around other people. With too much company and socializing, we become desperate for our own, private, sheltered space, so we can relax, take off our masks, be ourselves.

The homeless, by necessity more than by choice, unlearn this need for privacy pretty quickly. What a shock it must be to lose ones home and to go into a shelter for the first time, to find yourself sleeping on a thin mattress on a floor, with another body within a foot of you on every side! But I’ve learned that for those who’ve been homeless for awhile – especially those who avoid the shelters and make their encampments in parks and ravines and under bridges – it can be quite a shock to suddenly find oneself alone between four walls. They speak of how unnaturally quiet it is, how still and stale the air. And of how alone and isolated they sometimes feel. Sometimes our newly housed clients are unable to stay in their apartments at first. The enclosure is too much to bear. So they may retreat to a park, or find their “street family” in the parking garage and bed down with them.

Or, they’ll invite their street family to come indoors. Of course, they’ve been cautioned not to do this. By US. Yes, we the social workers caution our clients that they must give up the very beautiful and natural and human adaptation that has helped them to survive their weeks or years of homelessness: the capacity to share. They must give this up, or risk lose their housing. Maybe they are violating a condition of the lease. Or the comings and goings will create a disturbance. Their friends will being their dogs with them, or yell up to the window to be admitted at 2 am. The neighbors will complain. Ultimately, for the housing to survive, our clients have to become re-socialized. That street family wasn’t a real family, after all. Let those others get their own housing. Their own keys and leases. Their own private bathrooms.

And somehow, while something is surely gained…something else is surely lost. Yes, perhaps I’ve romanticized it a bit too much. Homelessness is not a pretty thing. But it does somehow, sometimes, in some ways, bring out some good, adaptive qualities. Sharing is one of them. I have no doubt that this sharing phenomenon arises in part because, paradoxically, it is somehow easier to share when there is very little. I once had a young client – a regular panhandler – who, whenever we were crossing the city together, always put some coins into the cups or upturned caps of the other panhandlers we passed. When I asked him why, he said, “Because I know what it feels like.” Maybe it’s the intimate familiarity with want, with need, with cold that fuels the generosity of the homeless. I’ve heard from several of my clients, when I’ve admonished them that they had to evict some of their “guests” or risk winding up back on the street, that they couldn’t turn away someone when it was cold or raining. They just couldn’t.

This is a dilemma that we work with: how to support these homeless without destroying the sense of sharing and community that has sustained them. I know that there are lessons in this.

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