Ending the Stigma Surrounding Homelessness
“How long are you planning on being homeless for?” Is a real question a woman was asked by two policeman as she sat on a park bench in the early hours of the morning.1 Placing the blame neatly over the individuals head for their situation by authoritative figures, government bodies and society in general is regarded as stigmatisation. The stigma is that the person experiencing homelessness is responsible for their situation. The economic and social push factors are disregarded as reasons causing people to live on the streets, in their cars, on their friends’ couches or in homeless shelters. Placing blame on the individual makes it a tiresome task to address the root causes of the issue. To get back on your feet, it’s virtually impossible to do it when you are questioning your own capabilities, your mind is filled with self-doubt, and the blame is pointed directly at you. Ending the stigma that clouds the homeless population is the first step in finding a meaningful, long-lasting solution for those doing it tough.
Why is stigma so strong?
Everyone is guilty of walking past a person sitting on the street with a cut of cardboard asking for kindness and spare change. Rushing past a person on the street is common practice. Acknowledging these people is a rare practice. Ignorance is bliss the saying goes. Disconnecting from the scene around you makes it easier to feel less guilt. Ignoring people also sends a message of power, and difference in status. Stigmatisation is an act of self-interest. People gain something from it. Their self-esteem is raised, they’re not the same as those people, and they’re more valuable. People experiencing homelessness represent the failures of capitalism. The uneven distribution of wealth and income inequality is on full display for everyone to see, including those holding up the cardboard.2
Not in My Backyard syndrome and the denial of services
Not in my backyard (NIMBY) refers to the denial of the location of civil services to be in their neighbourhood through the form of organised resistance.3 These include jails, drug rehabilitation centres, and homelessness services (shelter, affordable housing).4 NIMBY was originally used in to oppose construction of hazardous or unwanted infrastructure, which was usually put in place without locals being consulted.5 NIMBY is embedded in local, national and regional changes of the economy, providing public and how the public view possible dangers and threats to communities. The syndrome places heavy importance on the concept of home. This construction of home doesn’t include those experiencing homelessness, including services and facilities that would aid their well-being. Physically separating the location of home spaces and places of residence for the homeless population is a socially constructed form of stigma.6 Further, the concentration of human services in specific locations enables the reinforcement of stigmatising those areas. This results in difficulty accessing services. Being physically distant is deterrence. The services are there, to some extent. There is still a roadblock in being able to access them.
How stigma and NIMBY impact the homeless population
Placing the blame on an individual for their situation dismisses the social and economic push factors that often force people into their current situation. The impact of stigma and NIMBY further pushes the responsibility of change away from the government’s and policy maker’s list of responsibilities. The self-deprecating mindset caused by stigmatisation results in self-deprecation and places the blame back on one’s self. NIMBY reflects this stigmatisation through lack of acceptance. These two factors therefore deny the right the homeless population has to conduct their way of life, to utilize services available to them, and place the causes of homelessness away from the individual. Society needs to rethink they way it addresses homelessness and how to deal with the situation. The time of sweeping it under the rug is over.
How to move forward
Active members of society need to re-asses how they regard homelessness. This includes government bodies, policy makers, and everyday people walking the streets. Stigma has been used as a power play, and passes the blame on to those living on the streets for their lifestyle. Belcher & Deforge (2012) suggest two simple solutions: advocacy and research. Advocacy can be used to fight stigma, prejudice and discrimination, and advocate for the provision of information to those experiencing homelessness. Advocacy also encourages change that is needed within institutions such as community organisations and government agencies. In conjunction with advocacy, research would assist in identifying the underlying causes of stigma and social exclusion, to then be addressed. You can support a range of organisations that research and advocate for the homeless sector:
- Homelessness Australia: A voluntary body that advocates for the homeless sector working with organisaitons around Australia providing input in government policy, provision of research and advocacy (https://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/about/about-us.)
- Mission Australia: Provide assistance for those suffering from homelessness, as well as assisting in creating strategic initiatives in policy development and advocacy (https://www.missionaustralia.com.au/about-us)
- Council to Homeless Persons: represents both organisaitons and individuals through campaigning for policy changes (http://chp.org.au/about/)
1 Knight, A., Lorente, C. & Spooner, P. (2017) No fixed Abode: Stories from the Streets of Byron Bay. Byron Bay, Australia: Byron Bay Community Centre 2 Belcher, J. R. & Deforge, B. R. (2012). ‘Social Stigma and Homelessness: The Limits of Social Change’, Journal of Human Behaviour in the Social Environment, 22, 929-946 3 Takahashi, L. T. (1997). ‘The Socio-Spatial Stigmatisation of Homelessness and HIV/AIDS: Toward an Explanation of the NIMBY Syndrome’, Social Science & Medicine, 45(6), 903-914 4 NIMBY (Not in My Backyard). (n.d). Retreived January 1, 2018, from http://homelesshub.ca/solutions/affordable-housing/nimby-not-my-backyard 5 Bentley, P. (2013). Nimbys are the halves who want the whole hog. Retreived from http://www.smh.com.au/comment/nimbys-are-the-haves-who-want-the-whole-hog20130505-2j13x.html services,
6 Takahashi, L. T. (1997). ‘The Socio-Spatial Stigmatisation of Homelessness and HIV/AIDS: Toward an Explanation of the NIMBY Syndrome’, Social Science & Medicine, 45(6), 903-914