I’d like to draw attention right away to the title of this piece. Notice it isn’t entitled ‘Lessons learned while working with the homeless’. I think the difference here pretty much sums up the entirety of what I’ve learned in my 24 years of working in shelters and drop-in centers in Toronto.
The difference between referring to ‘people experiencing homelessness’ as opposed to ‘the homeless’ is vast. If I simply think of ‘the homeless’, it is easy to forget the humanity of the individuals being referred to. ‘The homeless’ implies that the entire curriculum vitae of a whole group of people is that they’re homeless. It doesn’t at all take into account the humanity of each individual in that group.
If I think of a ‘person experiencing homelessness’, the emphasis then focuses on their humanity first before their homelessness. This then opens one’s mind to the fact that the person in question is a real human being, with real red blood running through their veins, with real pains and joys, hopes and dreams and disappointments, talents and deficits, family and friends.
Just like us.
Take ‘Rusty’ for example. I met him many years ago in the drop-in I was running at the time. He was always drunk and could easily be overlooked and underestimated. In fact, he often was. As I got to know him, I learned more about his story. He was brutally abused as a baby and was taken from his home by Children’s Aid. A loving family adopted him before he was even 2-years old but the damage was already done. He was wounded. He began to drink as soon as he could get his hands on alcohol, and never looked back. But every single time I saw him he had the most contagious smile you could ever hope for. And he was very helpful. He gave me a hand around the drop-in with tasks that made running the place a whole lot easier. While he had very little, he always showed extreme gratitude for the things he did have. He had a very encouraging way about him and became a valued friend to me.
Rusty was one of many ‘people experiencing homelessness’ who taught me that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Each person I’ve met over the years has their own story, their own value, and their own contribution to this world. Each one of my street friends has enriched my life in ways I never imagined possible before I got into this work. I’ve come to a place of truly understanding that it’s not about ‘us’ and them’ at all. It’s just ‘us’, and we’re in this thing called life together.
And for that I’m truly thankful for the privilege I have of working alongside folks who have ended up experiencing homelessness, no matter what they look or smell like, what they may or may not have done, or where they’ve come from.