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“You fear what you don’t understand”: prejudice against homelessness around Toronto

FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

“You fear what you don’t understand”: prejudice against homelessness around Toronto

On eliminating otherness through empathy

I was on a casual, brisk walk around Queen’s Park — not through it, not after all of the stories and jokes I’d heard about what happens there after sunset. I was making my way to class with a friend when we saw a man walking toward us. Appearing unwashed, he wore baggy sweatpants and a ragged long sleeve shirt. I immediately felt uneasy as he approached.

He made eye contact with us once he was within a couple of paces, and I quickly side-stepped away from his path and averted my eyes to the opposite side of the street. My friend, who is less inclined to flee in uncomfortable situations, maintained eye contact and allowed the man to approach him.

The question that the man asked my friend was the last thing I was expecting: “Can you tell me how to get to Hart House?” My friend delivered a quick and slightly incoherent response, and we walked away, both sighing a breath of relief.

In that moment, as I thought back to the way my eyes had dropped and my heart raced, I was forced to confront a truth that I’d been unwilling to admit ever since moving to Toronto: I tend to fear those experiencing homelessness. This encounter hasn’t been a unique experience in my life. Whenever I encounter someone who appears to be living on the streets, I feel a strange mix of discomfort, apprehension, and guilt.

A conversation on prejudice

I sat down with Steven Lee, a second-year nursing student at U of T who experienced homelessness from ages 16–19, to discuss this seemingly programmed response of mine. He simply but profoundly said, “You fear what you don’t understand.”

And that’s exactly it. While I can only speak from my own experience, I think it’s safe to assume that many of us do not fear the basic definition of experiencing homelessness; rather, we fear the misinformed connotation that we attach to the idea of homelessness.

The predisposed conclusions that we draw from seeing someone sleeping on a sidewalk — that they must be dirty, experience drug use disorder, or mental illness — hinder us from understanding the reality of the situation.

Homelessness can be anyone who doesn’t have a solid state of living,” said Lee. “Because they have — especially in the more extreme cases — a hard time finding stability in their life, the lack of stability that’s present in their outward appearance scares people.”

However, as we’ve always been told, appearances can be deceiving.

“If you were to look at me, would you assume that I’m homeless?” Lee asked. When I said no, he replied, “but right now I’m dressed the same way as when I was 16 and homeless, or very similarly.”

“The fact is that most people judge homelessness by appearance, but homelessness is much more than that.”

Otherness breeds fear, and a lack of consistent food, shelter, and income is a foreign concept to some of us. In order to break down these barriers, we need to learn how to empathize with those experiencing homelessness. Without empathy, we usually resort to sympathy, a feeling that isn’t always effective to truly understand someone else’s story.

Lee recognizes that in a place like Toronto, there are very particular barriers that block our ability to see past preconceived prejudices.

“When we talk about a culture that highlights privilege in the way our city does, it gets really hard to empathize with a class that you’re not associated with,” Lee remarked.

Addressing housing as a human right

Although it’s difficult, we cannot continue to avert our eyes from the reality of homelessness. As of April 2018, there were 8,715 people experiencing homelessness in Toronto. These numbers are still rising due to economic conditions, the inaccessible housing market, and the influx of refugees and asylum seekers.

When addressing homelessness, many government policies have been discussed and plans have been enacted, but nevertheless the issue persists. Our incomprehension of such an experience has resulted in biased, ineffective public policy and a persistent lack in long-term solutions to the crisis.

One of Toronto’s main efforts to alleviate homelessness is the creation and expansion of shelters, which includes 24-hour respite sites, Out of the Cold programs, and more permanent shelters. However, the underlying issue of all these shelters is that they are short-term solutions to a long-term problem.

“Our city is in a state where homelessness is still on the rise, and if you don’t find these people homes, it’s like putting a bucket underneath a dripping roof,” said Lee.

The municipal government’s focus on providing shelters reflects a larger issue at hand: instead of viewing people experiencing homelessness as capable and intelligent citizens, we view them as charity cases in need of our paternalism. While shelters and donations are by no means an irrelevant contribution, these alone are insufficient to address the core of the issue: a lack of housing.

Leilani Farha, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing, stresses the need to view housing as a human right. Farha hopes to change perceptions of housing as an economic good to a social good through her nationwide efforts in “The Shift,” a movement that intends to protect the right to housing and end worldwide homelessness.

“The Right to Adequate housing is a human right according to the United Nations… because of the close relationship between housing and dignity,” Farha wrote to The Varsity. “[It’s] pretty hard to have human dignity when living in homelessness on the streets or doubled or tripled up with friends and family, or when living in housing without running water.”

Instead of increasing shelter space, the government’s priorities should shift to a housing-first approach. Housing first essentially means locating and placing someone in a permanent residence before addressing any mental health, addiction, abuse, or unemployment issues that may have contributed to their current state.

Advocates of this approach argue that once someone is in a home, they will begin to feel more secure, empowered, and capable, allowing every other concern to be approached in a more sustainable manner.

“I don’t feel safe”

In addition to being a short-term solution, shelters are also notorious for stringent rules and unsafe conditions.

“A shelter can’t necessarily guarantee the safety of its residence occupants, mostly due to either… [a lack of] man-power or other factors,” Lee said.

Lee also added that the shelter system is not sustainable for all.

“You’re held by a certain set of rules according to the shelter, which is totally logical because the shelter has to keep in mind and protect people who are interested in helping themselves, to a degree,” said Lee.

Lee points to shelters’ curfews as one example of a rule that can be difficult.

“What generally results is that these homeless individuals… might have a bad day and not meet curfew or something like that,” Lee said. “They have to be discharged and they’re back to being on the street, which is one step back from where they need to be.”

Some people experiencing homelessness even prefer living outside, in self-constructed encampments or on sidewalks, rather than facing the brutal realities of some of the city’s shelters.

Benjamin Boucher told The Globe and Mail of his experience with homelessness. “I have a really difficult time with [shelters]… I don’t feel safe inside.” Instead, he chose to live under the Spadina Avenue overpass because he was “less stressed” and slept more peacefully in his makeshift community.

Unfortunately for Boucher and many other individuals experiencing homelessness, the Toronto City Council sent eviction notices to these tented neighborhoods in January, telling the residents that they had two weeks to clear out. Although on the surface this may seem like a reasonable request, as public areas like highway bypasses and parks are not meant to be residential camp sites, it raises a bigger question about the inherent freedom of those facing homelessness.

Government responsibility

Jeremy Waldron, a New York University professor of law and philosophy, wrote an essay titled “Homelessness and the Issue of Freedom.” In it, he argues that if people are expected to perform certain tasks on their private property and not public property, then those without private property aren’t actually free to perform those “private” actions.

In terms of the highway encampments, people living there resort to performing their “private” actions of sleeping, relaxing, and various other necessities in public spaces. However, when the municipal government interferes and prevents these people from performing these vital functions under the highway, they force them to either break the law, or find another public space that hasn’t been put under these restrictions.

All of this circles back to the original dilemma: shelter spaces may be either unavailable or unlivable, private spaces are inaccessible and unaffordable, and now there are fewer public spaces where one has the freedom to live.

The government has not done its part in addressing this issue. Despite approving the Open Door Affordable Housing Program in 2016, meant to use surplus public land to build affordable housing, few rental homes have actually been completed. In 2018, there were 1,459 homes approved — however, only 69 of those have been finished.

This gap between the plan and the finished product reflects the government’s consistent lack of effective housing-first solutions. Housing is an essential step, but there is also a huge intermediate process between experiencing homelessness and being housed. Rather than keeping people in a perpetual loop of homelessness through short-term shelter solutions, or aiding the lucky few who can access the affordable housing market, the government needs to address all of the in-between steps to ease and support this transition.

In a city and nation that emphasize individual liberty, the government continually oppresses individuals experiencing homelessness by leaving them without an option to lead the same lives as private property owners.

The lack of public pressure is one reason that governments manage to evade addressing homelessness as the human rights crisis that it is. And why don’t we speak out against the injustice of overcrowded shelter systems, restrictive policies of public space, and absence of housing-first programs? We are guided by inherent biases toward the population facing homelessness —biases based on fear instead of fact, and the issue is easier to ignore than to confront.

To combat this fear and ignorance, we should prioritize both personal development and public education on the reality of homelessness, and open ourselves up to empathy.

According to Lee, the major steps that must be taken are to “remove stigma about homeless people, educate people on the advantages of these interventions, and get the personal stories of homeless people out there because you can’t empathize [if] you don’t know.”

Echoing his message, Farha wrote, “It is essential to reframe homelessness as the failure of governments to effectively implement the right to housing and that people living in homelessness are rights holders who have been failed, rather than failures themselves.”

Farha pointed out that housing is necessary for people to exercise other essential human rights, “such as rights to health, education, and employment… and because adequate housing is crucial to the social conditions necessary for human dignity, it is intimately connected to the right to life.”

On an individual scale, we all have the capacity to improve public perception of homelessness by actively fighting our pre-existing stigmas. By volunteering at soup kitchens or shelters, or even by researching the reality of homelessness in our communities, we can make personal strides toward achieving universal housing.

It all starts with a conversation and some open-mindedness — something that I will prioritize the next time someone approaches me with a question at Queen’s Park.

Disclosure: Steven Lee was The Varsity’s 2017–2018 Photo Editor.