The impacts of homelessness are not only physical and emotional – they are also social. Becoming homeless has been referred to as a “social death” – one in which a person’s social identity is radically transformed from neighbour and citizen to unwanted and threatening Other. The expressions of this “Othering” pervade our society, from comedy sketches ridiculing “hobos,” to laws like Ontario’s Safe Streets Act that make certain actions punishable only if performed by a person who appears to be homeless. What the comedians and legislators have in common in these examples is that they depict people facing homelessness as having less dignity, fewer rights, and less inherent worth than “ordinary” people – in short, as less than human. Just as importantly, such depictions influence how self-identified “ordinary” people see and respond to people they believe to be homeless.
Antipoverty activist Jean Swanson coined the term “poor-bashing” to name the attitudes, behaviours and policies that diminish the humanity of poor people. In a report co-authored with Wendy Pederson, she elaborates:
“Poor bashing is when people who are poor are discriminated against, stereotyped, humiliated, despised, pitied, patronized, ignored, blamed, and / or falsely accused of being lazy, drunk, stupid, uneducated and not wanting to work.”
For women facing homelessness, poor-bashing and discriminatory attitudes towards homeless people are further compounded by marginalization on the basis of gender, race, Aboriginal identity, age, disability, immigration status, sexual orientation and other factors. The result is a profound denial of fundamental human rights – which women facing homelessness in Canada brought to the attention of the United Nations in 2006.
Front-line services aim to address the effects of poverty and homelessness: they provide food, a place to sleep, emotional support, and resources. But being treated as less than human is as much an impact of homelessness as being dehoused and hungry. Services can help address the social impacts of homelessness by creating environments of mutual respect in which women’s human rights are recognized and restored.
Since 2010, I have been leading a study to look at how, exactly, services can create such environments – and today, the final report is released on Homeless Hub. The study was funded by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada’s Homeless Knowledge Development Program, with a mandate to identify, analyze and disseminate promising practices in homelessness services. Members of this research-action project didn’t just talk the talk, we walked the walk, striving to implement the good practices we were learning about. The project was based on feminist participatory action research methods, with a research team and advisory committee in which women facing homelessness, academic researchers, service providers, and self-advocacy groups worked side-by-side.
We agreed to focus on service practices that:
- directly involve women facing homelessness in designing and delivering policies and programs;
- promote women’s strengths, skills, self-reliance, and mutual support; and
- reflect and respond to diverse needs, identities and experiences.
We believed that such practices would be key in shaping service environments where women’s rights are promoted.
Unfortunately, as we heard in this project (and as I have witnessed first-hand in the past as a front-line worker), not all services uphold women’s basic rights of autonomy, dignity and self-determination. One focus group participant put it very eloquently:
“Canada ends at the doorstep of the shelters. When you’re outside, it’s Canada. When you go in, it isn’t. When I go in the door I know I’ve left Canada behind. When I say Canada, I mean everything – the values, the principles, what they stand for, everything.”
But the good news is, many front-line services are finding innovative ways to include women facing homelessness in service design, delivery, governance and evaluation; to build on women’s strengths through peer service models; and to promote women’s leadership and civic engagement. There are inspiring models outside the homelessness sector, too, that can be borrowed and built upon. Most importantly, women’s own responses to homelessness have much to teach organizations. Our report not only describes some of these great examples, it also identifies the day-to-day practices that are necessary to their success.
Making services better won’t end homelessness. The root causes of women’s homelessness— unaffordable housing, insufficient incomes, inadequate services, discrimination, and violence—must be addressed by changes to economic and social policies at the federal and provincial levels. But while we continue to advocate for changes at the systemic level, women facing homelessness and service providers can also work towards changes closer to “home”: in our organizations, and in our relationships with each other.
As this report demonstrates, these changes are already taking place among women and organizations all across Canada. The promising practices described here are at once visionary and practical, inspirational and instructive, infinitely adaptable and locally-specific. We hope that readers will take freely from these ideas and try them out. Working together, front-line services and women facing homelessness can build organizations that will challenge not only the social impacts of homelessness, but its root causes as well.