I had a great conversation with a friend. He’s a policy advisor who also happens to be very interested in homelessness (which I’ll also start referring to as being ‘unhoused’ or ‘houseless’). He essentially became an activist and was especially involved with working in parks where encampments were set up during the Covid-19 lockdown, so he had a lot of hands-on insights to share.
I asked him, amongst many things, about the apprehension he had in getting started. What were those first days like when he was entering a very different world than the vast majority of us ‘housed’ individuals are used to? He shared the fact that it was frightening, but that the fear quickly evaporated. As he got to know people in the community, he started to see how they were simply people. All with diverse interests, likes/dislikes, and personalities. Which when I think about it is absolutely obvious, but also reveals how a perception of homogeneity in the population has been quite deeply ingrained in me.
He also shared some examples of stigmas that we hold that got dismantled through his interactions. For instance, we tend to fear interactions with unhoused individuals. But the actuality is, the unhoused community often has great anxiety in dealing with the housed community because of how much they have to lose. A simple misunderstanding can escalate quickly and if ever authorities become involved, there is potential for being removed from their community and even jailed.
And speaking of community, my friend revealed how much of one there is. These encampments are especially interesting because of the different social structures that arise. In some encampments there is a more hierarchical dynamic vs others where it is more flat. People join together to share food, drink, clothing–essentially everything. I found it fascinating, and heart wrenching, to hear that when encampments were torn down in Toronto, the incidents of deaths from overdose increased as did assaults. The community simply wasn’t around to help each other out.
My friend also mentioned that many of these people he met were willing to share with him (knowing full well he comes from a very different socio-economic background) virtually everything they had. The generosity, in many cases, was unparalleled for him.
There was much more to our conversation, many personal anecdotes about people who became friends with him, but also people who suffered immensely because of how excluded they are. This all led me to see how far reaching stigmatization can be, and how complex and significant an issue it is.