Stigma and discrimination against individuals experiencing homelessness is so prevalent and normalized that we witness it being perpetuated by people in our daily lives to prominent figures in society. Just this past July, Susan Stevenson, a London Councillor, publicly tweeted a link to a blog post that entertained the idea of apprehending those who are hesitant to permanently stay off the streets, on the basis that no one should be allowed to live in the public spaces of our cities, and captioned it “London could be first'' followed by an emoji face with hearts around it (Lebel, 2023). How could it be that even authorities, those who have the power to make beneficial changes in our communities, disregard the compassion so vital in addressing the many issues that make living merely a struggle to survive for so many individuals?
The ease of casting a certain “invisibility” towards unhoused individuals and antagonizing them for crossing paths with us arises from a lack of understanding that is further misled by false representations in media (Unity Parenting & Counseling, n.d.). The resulting stereotypes relentlessly degrade their character, belittle their experiences, and prevent them from sustaining a healthy lifestyle where they can feel supported and secure. This is not only reflected through the way they are treated by individual people, but it has also extended to social institutions, including the healthcare and judicial system which heavily cement their “outsider” status in society (Unity Parenting & Counseling, n.d.).
Good care has always been about fostering a caring relationship and receiving empathy, but for people experiencing homelessness, good care simply means being seen and treated as individuals (Reilly et al., 2022). One of the key reasons for the high premature mortality rate seen in people experiencing homelessness, estimated to be between three to ten times greater than in the general population (Aldridge et al., 2018; Cheung & Hwang, 2004), is the anticipated negative stigma that they are forced to internalize, making them downright afraid of and avoid healthcare providers. In a study where multiple unhoused individuals were asked about their general feelings towards them, the following kind of scarily common statements received shone a bright, searing light on the underlying issues in the system as a whole in mistreating them:
“... I'm very intimidated by ... big Doctors ... I get very intimidated around them. I start to get panicky”
“Half the time the GP's not going to believe you ... they're just gonna think you want another script early because you're using it recreationally ....’
“Sometimes I lie about being in a shelter. It's degrading but I do it so they [hospital staff] aren't inconvenienced”
(Gunner et al., 2019, p. 2136 )
The healthcare system is not the sole upholder of these barriers against unsheltered people. Other social institutions like the judicial system also function in the relationship between homelessness and expulsion by displacing people from both public and private spaces (Robinson, 2019). Laws like the Safe Streets Act, passed originally in 1999, is a prime example of a law that still threatens the livelihood of people who experience homelessness to an even more detrimental degree today. While it was established under the broad and vague pretense of protecting pedestrians and vehicular traffic, its enforcement really means criminalizing the existence of unhoused individuals. Such laws have two long-lasting impacts, “first, they exacerbate poverty by levying increasingly unpayable fines against people, many of whom are racialized as nonwhite (Herring, 2019; Herring et al., 2020); [and] second, reveal a social death associated with homelessness where people lack money, are disenfranchised from communities and support systems, and are socially dishonored” (Ruddick, 2002).
It is evident that the social alienation of people experiencing homelessness is so ingrained in our society that it is not exempt from any aspect of our society. Stigmas that circulate around the individuals who need our compassion and utmost attention continue to propagate as they are promoted by prominent individuals and social institutions.
In order to create a compassionate and inclusive London where all people are seen, voices are heard, and human life is celebrated, we must communicate the complexity of homelessness by listening to the people who experience it as well as those who work with them to provide them support. Breaking down and rejecting the narratives and stereotypes that so tightly bound and confine people who are unhoused is what we must work towards to cultivate better social conditions for everyone.
Kaufman, D. (2020). Expulsion: A type of forced mobility experienced by homeless people in Canada. Urban Geography, 43(3), 321–343. https://doi.org/10.1080/02723638.2020.1853919.
LeBel, J. (2023, July 18). Arrest the homeless? London, Ont. councillor promotes controversial plan. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9839230/homeless-arrest-london-ont-controversial-plan-stevenson/.
Reilly, J., Ho, I., & Williamson, A. (2022, March 27). A systematic review of the effect of stigma on the health of people experiencing homelessness. Wiley. https://journals.scholarsportal.info/pdf/09660410/v30i0006/2128_asrotethopeh.xml_en.
Unity Parenting. (2022, April 8). Why homelessness is stigmatized. Unity Parenting and Counseling. https://unityparenting.org/why-homelessness-is-stigmatized/.
Edited by: Thuwaraka Mohanakumar