“Life is as you make it” Homelessness, Housing and Choice

When asked how he feels about housing, James, the participant in the film, Money Changes You, has this surprising answer:

I’d rather be back on the street because I understand the street better than living indoors. Living outdoors you’re completely free. You’re independent and life is as you make it day by day by yourself and it’s more honest and honourable. Because once you’re indoors you start having all the syndromes of modern industrial society. Living indoors you go soft right away. I wish I could still stay outside and just live life as it comes along, but unfortunately now I’m pension age. And money changes you. I have an income.

Besides James, several other participants in the Here At Home films make statements that seem to reinforce the popular assumption that homelessness is a choice. If this assumption is true, how can a program like At Home possibly succeed? If it’s not true, what’s behind these statements? For filmmaker Manfred Becker, James is expressing the difficulty of adjusting to a new environment, “It makes sense from his perspective, because that’s the place he knows, he knows the rules of the street and how to operate out there. So to be suddenly in an enclosed space with walls and a door and a ceiling three feet over his head – claustrophobia would be a sane response to that.” “For me, what James voices is that fundamental question of “what is a good life?” For some people working all day and coming home at five to sit in front of a TV is not a good life. And when somebody like James voices that, it’s important because it makes the rest of us reflect on that question and perhaps think, “yeah, maybe he’s right.” I mean, some people prefer to go camping outdoors instead of staying in a hotel. So what’s the difference between doing that for a few days and doing it year-round? There are no easy answers.” But, as James’s caseworker, Bouchra Arbach points out, James’s range of choices has narrowed, “Between freedom and security, James chose freedom. And freedom, for him, was the street. But now that he’s older and frailer, he’s had to choose security.” According to Sonia Côté, coordinator of the “At Home” project in Montreal, participants in the study typically go through several stages of adjustment when they first enter housing. “In the general population, there’s this persistent belief that getting off the street is easy.” But, as she explains, the shift from being homeless to being housed can be incredibly difficult. At first, participants usually experience a feeling of euphoria, but this is often followed by a sense of isolation and loneliness. “On the street, there’s always something to do. It’s lively, there’s always some action.” No longer preoccupied with the daily struggle to survive or the activity of the street, individuals come face to face with their life choices. “Going from the street to housing is a huge transition and during this period participants have to rebuild their social networks while creating new routines for themselves. And this is where their caseworkers can help.”

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