Canadian student Carter Vance, who's being mentored by a social enterprise in the UK this summer as part of an international work-study exchange programme, gives us his take.
Since joining Emmaus, a UK-based social enterprise that seeks to transform conditions for the homeless, it has struck me that misconceptions about homelessness in the UK and my home country of Canada are very similar.
Here are the main ones, as I see them.
Myth: Homeless persons* are uneducated and lack work skills/experience
It is true that homeless persons in the UK and Canada tend to have fewer formal educational qualifications than the general population. However, this is not always the case and it can often lead to the idea that all homeless persons need elementary training in order to overcome social exclusion.
The depth and variety of many of the skills backgrounds that 'companions' (Emmaus' term for those residing in communities) bring to the table is truly amazing. For example, one companion I spoke to had previously been a technology manager for a branch of a large banking firm in London, and on this basis was able to help the community install and maintain its software system for tracking inventory and sales.
This contribution was only possible because of the wide variety of roles that companions are able to take on, and the trust Emmaus vests in them. The point here is to recognise the wide variety of life experiences of persons who become homeless, and to design training and support in such a way that recognises the talents and interests of each individual.
Myth: Homeless persons are homeless due to addiction or mental health problems
There is no question that addictions and mental health concerns contribute to homelessness. Recent statistics from the UK indicate that approximately 80 per cent of homeless persons have mental health problems, and that adequate support must therefore include treatment within these areas. However, these facts often obscure a more complex reality and lead to homeless persons being stereotyped as threatening and dangerous.
The truth is that many factors, ranging from relationship breakdown to communication barriers, can contribute to an individual becoming homeless, and it is usually a combination of many of these at once. Consider an individual leaving an abusive relationship who is also new to a particular area, perhaps not speaking the local language very well, or simply lacking a support network or awareness of community resources. That person would be at an increased risk of becoming homeless due to the way those individual risk factors interact.
Another thing to keep in mind is that addiction and poor mental health are just as often an effect of being homeless as a cause. Indeed, these things are in some ways an inevitable response to the incredible stress that homelessness creates. These problems can then reinforce themselves in a vicious cycle. Nevertheless, when organisations provide material support and a reorienting structure to the lives of homeless people, the cycle can gradually be broken down.
Myth: Homeless persons are only those sleeping on streets or in temporary shelters
According to the most recent UK government estimates, approximately 2,700 persons 'slept rough' in England as a whole – a figure which seems low in a population of 53 million. However, this figure fails to account for the 'hidden homeless': those persons without permanent, secure housing, who are sleeping in friends' houses, hostels, rent-rooms, and other such arrangements. This mistaken impression also distorts the demographics of homelessness, as rough sleepers are more likely to be male and older than the overall homeless population.
If we can recognise the areas of hidden homelessness, we can often resolve problems before they get worse. Emmaus, for example, has recently expanded into offering training and support for disadvantaged young persons via a partnership with the East London-based non-profit Streets of Growth, acting to improve life chances early on.
There are, of course, other myths that surround homelessness and those experiencing it, but these three are perhaps the most prevalent and pernicious. As the problem in Canada and the UK increases, we would do well to tackle these, and other, false assumptions.
*Homeless 'persons' (rather that 'people') is the preferred term within the sector, as it acknowledges that each homeless person is an individual facing a unique set of circumstances, rather than just part of an undifferentiated group.