Homelessness has been one of the most talked about issues in Canada in recent years. All political parties have some sort of platform that aims to address it. However, it seems that the options provided by the government are more band-aid solutions than policies that actually tackle the problems at the source.
At the heart of the issue is the idea that homeless people are not usually perceived as actual people, deserving of respect and attention to the nuances of their different plights. They are seen as non-contributing members of society who are incompetent, lazy, careless or severely mentally ill.
Those who are mentally ill are even more harshly judged; their illnesses are dismissed or ignored. Paradoxically, society tends to see most or all homeless people as a little bit “off” mentally. Our society as a whole more often than not sees homeless people as nuisances in our day-to-day lives rather than humans who should be understood and empathized with.
An example of this outlook came to media attention through a Facebook group called “Creature Sightings,” where users upload photos or videos of themselves with homeless people. These users are not filming themselves helping the homeless people, mind you, but rather ridiculing and mocking them. A similar dehumanization revolves around sightings of so-called “creatures” at Walmarts across the country.
A group of boys posted a video in the Facebook group that showed them approach a homeless man reading a book in downtown Calgary. They repeatedly asked him where he got the book and how he could read — all in a mock Steve Irwin accent, of course. They also called him a “creature,” saying things such as, “You are a magnificent specimen, you know that creature?”
Though there were many who spoke out to condemn the video and what it represented, there were more people who found it absolutely hilarious, saying that the boys were doing nothing wrong by mocking the man and his life decisions that led him to the streets
It’s disturbing to think that people find the verbal abuse of a disenfranchised person to be funny. These are people who very rarely have a voice in our society and the Facebook group clearly shows there are many who would rather mock them than ask them about how society can help bring them back into the fold.
According to a keynote speech by J. David Hulchanski at the University of Calgary, the top two reasons why people become homeless excludes the factor many people may give for why they think someone is homeless — mental illness, which accounts for less than five per cent of the homeless population.
The list does include inability to pay rent due to inadequate income and domestic conflicts or abuse. These two reasons alone account for 79 per cent of the people who require assistance from shelters or are out on the streets.
It is also important to recognize that 20 per cent of the homeless population are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual or transgendered youth. That is a staggering percentage for a country that prides itself on its provision of LGBTQ rights on equal bases with all other human rights.
The Canadian Homelessness Research Network says that 200,000 people annually go without stable homes. This number does not include the hidden homeless, people who crash on friends’ couches or who stay with their families on temporary bases because they have no other places to go.
Statistics like these are rising every year and the demographic at risk is no longer just men ages 21-45. Canada is seeing an increase in single mothers, the elderly and, worryingly, Aboriginals — a demographic already over-represented in the homeless population — on the streets and without permanent residences each year.
Additionally, there needs to be more awareness of the fact that most homeless people are not simply mentally ill, as is often asserted, and therefore “beyond help” in some way.
They are regular functioning members of society who hold jobs, have friends and family and contribute to their communities. The catch is that they are unable to pay for housing, very often even if they hold jobs. That is a feeling a lot of us certainly can empathise with — several of us know the feeling of fearing whether or not we can afford rent and groceries in the same month and then in the next and then the next.
The government needs to expand the scope of affordable housing and related programs — employment, job training, unemployment insurance, income assistance, etc. — and give people the resources to regain their lives or start to have the lives they are entitled to. For the people who are mentally ill and on the street, there needs to be assistance programs, places of care and safety that cater to their needs.
Regardless of what the government does, we can at the very least all give our respect to the homeless within our communities and treat them with the dignity with which we should treat all human beings. This should not just end with denouncing things like the “Creature Sightings” Facebook group.
Putting ourselves in the perspectives of others and seeing the hardships they are facing are important further actions to take.
The question is: how do we show this to groups in society so desensitized that they cannot even bring themselves to understand that the homeless are humans and not “creatures”?
This is an important consideration as we continue to think about how the root causes of poverty and homelessness themselves can be eliminated.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor