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SOCIAL JUSTICE

SNAPSHOT HOMELESSNESS AND

IDENTITY

By Dr Andy Marks andy.marks@vinnies.org.au

16 November 2009

Perceptions of homelessness can significantly influence our ability to overcome it

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he term “homeless person” is used readily in theory, practice and policy – even among people experiencing homelessness – yet its connotations and impact are rarely considered. Researcher, Guy Johnson says the manner in which housing and homeless service providers interpret an individual’s “housing and homelessness history” is critical in determining a person’s ability to “get out and stay out” of homelessness. The “homeless person” label is a fundamental part of an individual’s sense of self, and it can have a substantial bearing on their capacity to overcome marginalisation and disadvantage.

Homelessness is an identity, an identity shaped not solely by an individual’s self perception but also the singular and collective perceptions of others. Homelessness is an identity, an identity shaped not solely by an individual’s self perception but also the singular and collective perceptions of others. It is an identity forged through both patterned and idiosyncratic interaction with innumerable social networks, service systems, cultures, policy structures, and environments.

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Our identity is never complete; rather, it is always changing, constantly being defined and re-defined by external factors beyond our control. Prominent theorist, William Connolly explains, “my identity is what I am and how I am recognised rather than what I choose, want, or consent to”. Fundamentally, identity is determined by difference – one individual’s difference from another. If we are defined by our difference from others, then a person experiencing homelessness can in many respects be defined by their difference (and distance) from mainstream society. This risks entrenching a homeless person’s sense of being an outsider, reinforcing the selfdefining feeling that they do not belong. It is here that we begin to see the meaning of the term marginalisation. Other implications come to light when homelessness and identity are considered. If we understand identity as a phenomenon constantly being redefined on the basis of individual’s interactions, then the range and nature of those interactions becomes a matter of great importance, potentially hindering or enabling a person’s ability to overcome homelessness. Stigma is the most discernable impact of a homeless person’s interaction with mainstream society. Not dissimilar to mental illness, homelessness is a highly stigmatised experience. In 2007, the Victorian based welfare agency Hanover, conducted a survey of 2,769 Australians seeking to gauge public attitudes of homelessness. Nearly 90 per cent of respondents thought that “mental illness and substance/alcohol abuse” was the most common cause of homelessness, and just under half of those surveyed blamed homelessness on “poor decision making or lack of effort” on the part of the homeless. These responses do not match the facts. A study of 4,291 homeless people in Melbourne conducted in 2008, found previous estimations of the rate of mental illness among homeless persons – some as high as 80 per cent – have been grossly “over exaggerated”.

Previous estimations of the rate of mental illness among homeless persons – some as high as 80 per cent – have been grossly over exaggerated. Research found that only 15 per cent “had mental health issues prior to becoming homeless, and 16 per cent developed mental health issues after becoming homeless.” The extent of the gulf between public perceptions and fact is staggering.

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The extremely negative connotations the general public attaches to homelessness are highly corrosive to an individual’s self-esteem. Formerly homeless man Tony agrees. “People don’t understand the situation”, he says. “When you’re homeless, you’re very much alone. Nobody wants to talk to you. It makes you feel as though you’re not a part of things. It’s as though you’re invisible.” Public misconceptions of homelessness are incredibly damaging. They foster harmful stereotypes and heighten crippling stigma among the people experiencing homelessness, eroding their sense of self, skewing their identity, and making the journey to recovery far harder than it already is.

“When you’re homeless, you’re very much alone. Nobody wants to talk to you. It makes you feel as though you’re not a part of things. It’s as though you’re invisible.” Punishing people for being homeless would seem a completely illogical way to address the problem, yet the mainstream population continues to endorse this approach towards marginalised individuals. As if the experience of being homeless was not traumatic enough, simply being homeless can subject an individual to all manner of punitive measures. Anti vagrancy laws and legislation prohibiting access to public space effectively leave homeless persons without the right to exist. The Centre for Public Law point out that “vagrancy, loitering, trespass, public drinking, anti-begging, anti-sleeping and anti-camping laws” prevent many people from carrying out “essential human activities”. Discriminatory legal restrictions on access and movement perpetuate cycles of blame towards disadvantaged people, marginalising them both figuratively and literally. These segregations compound an individual’s belief that they are detached from mainstream society, reducing the likelihood of recovery. The implications in terms of self-perception, is to confirm an individual’s identity as simultaneously homeless and separate from mainstream society.

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Governments are beginning to acknowledge past failures. As a result of intense lobbying and social justice advocacy, increased importance has been placed on developing policy that responds to the latest research and changing community attitudes. For example the NSW Government’s five-year plan to reduce homelessness includes a broad preamble accepting the complexities associated with the issue.

“Homelessness is a life circumstance that could happen to any of us.” The statement reads, “The community understands that homelessness is a life circumstance that could happen to any of us, and understands the links between homelessness and other social issues such as domestic and family violence, mental health issues and involvement with the child protection system. Our responses to homelessness recognise the effect of homelessness on the individual, their family and friends, and the community as a whole.” While no singular perspective or approach to homelessness is correct, it is clear that the way we perceive homelessness directs every facet of our engagement with people experiencing it. The pivotal factor to consider when analysing mainstream perceptions disadvantage is how a disadvantaged person’s difference from the mainstream shapes their identity. We must take care that we do not unintentionally relegate an individual’s experience of disadvantage to one of social deviation, simply because a person’s limited resources prevent them from conforming to socalled social norms. This is a message that comes through the latest research, yet it is also at the heart of the Vincentian approach. The St Vincent de Paul Society’s guiding tome, ‘The Rule’, steadfastly urges the promotion of “human dignity and personal integrity in all their dimensions.” If identity requires difference in order to be, the key to ensuring the differentiating features of homelessness are not perceived as negative lies in accepting the fundamentally transformative nature of identity. Identity must always be understood as a work in progress and not a complete, static phenomenon. In many cases, this is a fact some are more ready to embrace than others.

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Gary, a man who has experienced homelessness for nearly thirty years was approached by a researcher on the streets of Sydney who asked how long he had been homeless. “I’m not just homeless”, he replied in a somewhat frustrated tone. “I do other things. I go to the library, I read, I listen to music and I take photos.” These aspects of Gary’s life were major self-defining features of his identity. The rendering of him as “homeless”, was a projection; an unwittingly marginalising projection formed by attitudes deeply entrenched in mainstream society. Overcoming marginalisation as endured by an individual experiencing homelessness requires that we accept difference, not as a form of deviance, nor as something to be necessarily understood, cured or even overcome, but rather as an inexorable part of an individual’s identity SJ

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http://vinnies.org.au/files/NSW/SocialJustice/SJS/snapshot_2009_11_16_homelessness%20and%20identity  

http://vinnies.org.au/files/NSW/SocialJustice/SJS/snapshot_2009_11_16_homelessness%20and%20identity.pdf