22 Nov 2016

Homelessness is more complicated than you think

12:35 pm on 22 November 2016

Jonathan Foster on how getting to know rough sleepers in Wellington changed his perspective.


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Photo: Toby Morris

Bums, bag ladies, hobos, drunks, opportunists, beggars and an assortment of other names. These are some of the representations that colour society’s imagination when it comes to the “homeless”, specifically rough sleepers. They’re conjured by a range of media from film and television, to news reports and political platforms.

Along the way to our collective consciousness, these perceptions pick up local nuances from our everyday interactions with people who make their lives on the street as well as the influential legacies left behind by iconic individuals such as Ben Hana, aka “Blanket Man”, and Robert Jones, the “Bucket Man”, who even has a mention in the Te Ara encyclopedia.

These images can invoke an eclectic range of feelings from the romantic view of a wayward traveller, an eccentric who refuses to be tied down by the materialistic pursuits of modern life, to an outright hostility towards people who are perceived as being unable to look after themselves yet expecting help from others.

For most of us, these images may inspire a detached sympathy. A feeling of sadness that their life took a turn for the worst, but also an inability to fathom the ways in which our circumstances might be related, due to the incommensurable social distance between us. As a society we shower those who help the homeless with gratitude, but explanations for why people end up on the street in the first place usually boil down to a failure of personal responsibility, be it an individual’s bad decisions, poor attitude, addiction or mental health issues.

At times, these perceptions can seem rightly legitimised by encounters with those who appear to be homeless, whether it be public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling, or just the sight of rough sleepers struggling more generally.

But the truth is, homelessness and urban poverty, and the associated “social ills” of alcoholism and drug use, occur in far more complicated contexts than such static images or brief encounters reveal. Moreover, they tend to only point towards the experiences of “rough sleepers”, who inhabit the extreme end of the homelessness scale, accounting for just over 4,000 of the 42,000 New Zealanders currently estimated to be homeless. Many more live in overcrowded flats, caravan parks, cars and a range of other severely substandard living situations.  Even when limited to “rough sleepers”, these ideas and images produce a dangerously one-dimensional view.

The lives of the people I was fortunate enough to encounter during my Master’s research were filled with vitality and kindness. I saw people in the face of immense hardship and difficulties finding ways to have fun and support each other, as well as experiencing the conflicts brought about by different personalities and precarious living situations. They told me of their pasts which had led them to the street, as well as the desires and ambitions that motivated them for a better future.

I was invited to barbecues, hung out at drop-in centres and the soup kitchen, and sat with people while they earned money panhandling. They were generous with their time and stories, sharing both uplifting and harrowing accounts of their life histories, more than willing to own up to past mistakes or grievances.

I saw strong yet weary individuals facing significant barriers to the kinds of lifestyles we take for granted, doing their best to make good of unstable living situations.

I observed how future motivations shaped and sustained their actions in the present and the steps they took to maintain their, and others, well-being. I also witnessed the frequent impasses and blockades, such as housing uncertainty, which defined their everyday life and eroded people’s hope. Sometimes they slipped up, made mistakes, relapsed or things didn’t go their way. But, for the most part, I saw strong yet weary individuals facing significant barriers to the kinds of lifestyles we take for granted, doing their best to make good of unstable living situations.

The fact is, there is no singular homeless population; each person’s reasons for doing things are diverse, and the ways they react to certain situations as well as the struggles that influence their decisions are equally as varied as the desires that motivate them.

The sentiment that underlines the perceptions of people living on the streets as hapless individuals, potential criminals or general deviants to be kept at arm's length reinforces the social stigma they already face everyday. The fact of the matter is, problematic behaviours such as attitude issues, alcoholism or drug use can’t be distilled from the circumstances that produce them. Even when people do their very best to avoid drugs and alcohol or behave in a consistently courteous manner, their path to being housed often doesn’t speed up. If we expect people living on the streets to be passive and pious about their situation, we deny them the right to feel the full range of emotions from frustration to elation that living in such a precarious situation entails.  

It also implies that rough sleepers are only on the streets due to personal mistakes or deficiencies of character. This fails to acknowledge the impact external factors in society, such as endemic poverty, systemic racism, changes in welfare requirements, the privatisation of prisons and an increasingly out of reach housing market, which disproportionately affects recently released prisoners, have on people living on the streets.

Conversely, solely blaming social structures and institutions for people’s circumstances can overlook the strategies or choices people make to get by and live life on their own terms, ignoring the ways they manage their long and short term livelihoods.

This series is a small attempt to challenge some of the conventional wisdom surrounding the conversation about homelessness. It’s an invitation to think deeper about some of the everyday encounters you may share with people who make their lives on the street, as well as an opportunity to ponder the more intangible dimensions of what it means to be, and to feel, at home in the world.

In the Streeties series, each comic takes its shape from the experience of a particular individual, though have been crafted in a way to reveal some of the more generalised themes that have emerged from my research, as well as being anonymised in order to protect their identity. The comics are not intended to paint a definitive picture of what it means to be homeless, nor are they an objective account of the homeless experience. Rather they are insights into a few different tensions people living on the street must deal with on an everyday basis, and the ways in which they respond to them.

Throughout my research I became in awe of activities such as panhandling that had previously held little meaning for me. One night I recall meandering up Courtenay Place to meet up with an interviewee. There was a game on at Westpac Stadium, so town was bustling with activity. Red-faced, well-dressed folk walked in between bars, while taxis ferried more and more people in and out of town.

Upon finding him I sat down and we began the interview while he worked. The act of panhandling took on a whole new significance to me. Not just a passive recipient of loose change, my interviewee actively engaged with both members of the public and other streeties, breaking up fights on Courtenay Place, giving people directions, returning lost belongings and keeping an eye on people who looked like they’d had too much to drink. He looked after other streeties by divvying up food and taking it round to those who needed it.

Being on the streets actually helped him on his journey to stay clean, because the role he served, and the interactions he engaged in provided him with the kind of meaning and responsibility people living in houses may associate with their workplace. Now, this is not to suggest that it’s always all roses or that all people beg for the same reasons. There can often be conflict over begging spots as well as the risk of being stood over; and for all the warm and friendly conversations they engage in, streeties often have to endure a torrent of disparaging and condescending remarks.

Sometimes being housed in the material sense can disrupt the sense of “home” they’ve developed on the streets. 

But the reality of the situation is that for many people who call the streets their home, finding an inroad into the job market is difficult. If you have a criminal record or are living on the street, there are challenges to entering the formal job market that are not easily overcome in a service industry based economy. The prevailing logic of the meritocratic society, that anyone can achieve their desires if they work hard enough, becomes a perversely harmful influence on their livelihood, as people internalise feelings of failure despite facing significant external barriers to work. An unfortunate outcome of this is feelings of hopelessness and self-blame, which wear away at people's resilience, potentially leading to alcoholism, drug use and worsening mental frames of mind.

Much of the same logic underpins their struggle with entering the private housing market. Regardless of whether they can muster the money to pay a bond, two weeks rent in advance, and thereby maintain ongoing rent and expenses, they are unlikely to be selected in a competitive housing market. Public housing on the other hand, is in high demand. Many of my participants have been on Housing New Zealand waitlists for years at a time while sleeping rough, moving in and out of shaky accommodation, only to be told they were not a priority.

For those that are not on waitlists, or for those that have gone inside but come back out again, there are reasons too. Sometimes being housed in the material sense can disrupt the sense of “home” they’ve developed on the streets. If we take home as being the feeling of control, comfort, and familiarity we associate with that place in the world where we can walk tall; the space that we feel we both belong to, and belongs to us, then it’s not hard to understand why some people living on the street express an ambivalence towards being housed. It can break up the activities that provided them with meaning and fulfillment, disrupt important social connections that nourish their wellbeing, while not always addressing their reasons for being on the streets in the first place.

The conditions that come with being housed can often be difficult to maintain or require forgoing some privacy, which streeties who have turbulent relationships with state institutions and agencies may be reluctant to give up. Thus, if someone tells you they’re on the streets by choice, or that they don’t want to be housed, it may be more a rejection of the baggage that comes with moving inside, rather than an outright opposition to being helped or housed altogether.

This is not to suggest that the government doesn’t have a responsibility to provide safe, secure and habitable housing for its citizens, or that we shouldn’t continue our efforts to end homelessness. Access to safe, secure and habitable housing is a human right and is vital to the well-being and survival of many people currently living on the street. Moreover, society depends on engaged citizens as much as it needs well-funded social services, such as the DCM, Wellington City Mission and the Sisters of Compassion Soup Kitchen among others, to provide for those who are in need.

It’s a call to widen our scope of understanding the ways in which people inhabiting non-traditional living spaces carve out meaningful lives in the face of hardship and adversity. Recognising both the structures of society that adversely affect their circumstances, as well as the diverse ways people living on the street respond to these. Home has significant meaning for all of us, and in order to develop sustainable, meaningful solutions to homelessness we need to be attuned to understanding the different ways people find, or make, a home for themselves in the world.