The issue of homelessness is one that is far too common, and too often misunderstood. I’ve heard time and time again that homeless people are “just lazy” or that they choose to live like this. It’s the idea that a homeless person would rather live on the streets, be subject to mistreatment from police, the disrespect from citizens, and even the very architecture which is inherently hostile towards their very existence, than to simply “put in the work and get a job.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who was told growing up that you shouldn’t give money to those on the streets because they will “spend it on drugs” or otherwise misuse it. This mindset is suggesting that their homelessness is not because of the disadvantages they face or the way this country’s capitalistic system is orchestrated, but rather because of their misuse of money, hence why we are told it is wrong to donate and help where you can and why homelessness is always at the fault of the one suffering.
As a child, I lacked the awareness to think critically about the ideas and opinions I was told to believe, however, it is now very clear how incorrect statements like the ones above are and how harmful they are towards the homeless population. In order to be able to deconstruct these narratives and generalizations and tackle this ignorance and disrespect as a whole, we must first look at individual statements and ideas.
First, I will discuss the idea that homeless people are lazy and don’t want to put in the work to get out of poverty. Aside from this narrative being incredibly rude and disrespectful towards anyone currently homeless or living in poverty, it is also just simply incorrect. The term “lazy” is so often misused or used to mask blatant disrespect towards a person or certain group of people. For example, those suffering from depression are often labeled as “lazy” in order to downplay and belittle their illness and add another layer of shame on top of everything they are already struggling with. They’re not depressed, some will say, they’re just lazy.
Now to put this false concept of what it is to be “lazy” in the context of the homeless population. It is similarly being used here to dismiss and belittle the struggles of others. To be lazy implies a choice. Laziness has an easy fix: simply doing something instead of nothing. Homelessness, however, does not have this easy fix. Someone doesn’t choose to be homeless just as someone doesn’t choose to be depressed, and therefore they aren’t just ignorant to the solution or not bothered to do anything regarding their current situation.
The idea that homeless people are lazy is often followed with the line “if they don’t want to live on the streets, they should just get a job.” This rhetoric is more harmful than the idea that a homeless person is lazy, as not only can they not be bothered to do something about their situation, but the solution is easy and effortless. Those who believe that this is true expose an inherent privilege and bias in believing that a job is all it takes to get off the streets, not even taking a second to consider that getting a well-paying job as a homeless person is far more difficult than a housed person. It is almost impossible to get a job without a home address, not to mention one that is sustainable enough to cover the cost of living.
The cost of living has been consistently rising over the past few years, but minimum wage has all but stayed the same. Currently, minimum wage in Nova Scotia is $13.60 an hour, while a minimum livable wage is closer to $24 an hour. Therefore, even if someone were able to secure a job without a home address, which is again unlikely, they wouldn’t be making near enough to sustain themselves, let alone get out of homelessness. If the solution to homelessness really was as simple as people say it is, it wouldn’t be nearly as big of a problem as it is now.
Another very disrespectful idea is the idea that you should never give a homeless person money, under the impression that they will irresponsibly spend it on drugs. It’s not like those who spread this message don’t themselves use their money to buy drugs. The only difference is that one is legal and without stigma, and the other isn’t. Other than being incredibly hypocritical, the idea that you are automatically better at managing your money than someone else simply because they’re on the streets and you aren’t is so rude and disrespectful. Just because you have the money to be housed doesn’t make you automatically more responsible, or having the moral superiority to decide what is the right or wrong way to spend your money.
Instead of worrying about homeless people spending their money on drugs, it is far more productive to instead focus this energy towards harm reduction. Halifax specifically has a large problem with laced street drugs. Buying drugs is much more dangerous now than it ever has been. We shouldn’t be shaming homeless people for being addicts but should instead make sure that the drugs they are consuming are safe. You can learn more about harm reduction here. The more awareness that is spread, the safer street drugs and users will be, and it will help shake the stigma around it.
Homelessness is never at the fault of the homeless. Rather, it is often due to a lack of affordable housing, mental illness, and a lack of available resources. Before you judge the person suffering, take the time to consider their situation and the reason they’re on the streets in the first place. Treat everyone with basic respect, regardless of income or socioeconomic status. Donate where you can, but there’s no shame in not being able to afford to donate. At the end of the day, everyone needs to learn to just be kinder to each other. We’re all human, and you aren’t any better or superior to someone with lower income and less available resources.