Thursday, July 28, 2005


A lot of people on the street have made some questionable choices. Sometimes I hear people saying that the homeless have been oppressed, come from bad families, and that they are discriminated against. The economy has been blamed, genetics have been blamed, and large corporations have been blamed. Even the organizations that help people have been blamed for enabling. These are all influences. While it is true that there is a relationship between poverty, child abuse and homelessness, it is also true that street people at some point choose to continue what they are doing. While a bad economy and large multinational corporations wreak havok on communities, we still make decisions to sit back or take action. I want to be very clear here, so you don't think I am saying homeless people "got themselves into their mess, and they can get themselves out," which would be wrong. Basically, we cannot on one hand say that we want to "empower" street people, while saying that "it's not their fault." If it is not their fault, it is also out of their control, which is a state of powerlessness. This is the opposite of the truth. The truth is, many street people are enticed to suffering by bad influences, and get caught up in suffering on such a level that they forget that they chose to be there. Others have been simply pummeled by circumstances that no human could possibly get out of without help. Mental illness comes to mind as an example where the external influence is extremely large, and choice is obviously limited. Compulsive spending is perhaps on the other end of the spectrum, where conscious choice seems to be the larger cause. Again, a sudden disaster like an earthquake or death in the family presents a situation where options are limited, while an addiction issue seems to be more about personal options. Each homeless person finds themself somewhere between these two extremes, and the internal and external forces feed each other in a negative spiral. A person loses a loved one, starts drinking, and gives up. After some time, medical issues prevent basic employment, and the person is "stuck." Choice and not-choice.

I would like to present an easy solution to homelessness, or a magic "cure," but in reality, each situation is a delicate balance of recognizing what the client can do for themself, and where support is clearly needed. Making large sweeping generalizations about the street population, and subsequent policies that apply to everyone is ineffective and plain silly. We need to constantly assess and reassess clients. For that matter, we have to assess ourselves, and realize our own intentions in a given situation. A good social worker is fluid and as flexible as a reed in the wind, bending where needed to match the client in recovery. Ask lots of questions, be curious, and for goodness sake, be compassionate. Even if the person that has made a massive amount of mistakes still deserves mercy, because we all mess things up from time to time.


jen said...

I'm an auxiliary EAW in Victoria (who's been laid off for about 5 weeks now). I just found your blog while researching homelessness. I've been overwhelmed thinking about it lately. I come from a working family, but realize now how privileged I was (and am). I read all of your postings and appreciate that you've kept on writing despite a lack of comments. Thanks.

I identify with the difficulty of saying "no". I often rationalize that it's not within my authority under "regulations", but I know it's little solace to folks on the other side of the counter who go without. Sometimes I feel like a sucker when I give a crisis grant to someone who knows the system and answers the questions before I ask them, but then I realize that although I hate the feeling of working the system, the system doesn't really provide adequately to satiate a person's needs (basic physical needs -- barely, but basic psychological and emotional needs through safe, adequate housing, etc.-- not so much).

I feel like I could write a book in response to your posts... Thanks for the insights and please keep writing.

Mike said...

Have you ever heard of Thomas Szasz?

I recommend you Google that name: then surf over to "Mental Health and Civil Liberties," which should be on the first page or so.

His ideas influenced Canada as well as the U.S.

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