In part one of this pair of rants, I wrote about shifting the focus of the cause of homelessness back to where it belongs: onto the policies that put the right to housing out of reach for many. This is one narrative that needs to change as we work to end homelessness. If homelessness is understood as a personal choice or individualized failing, our calls for policy reform don't make sense. When homelessness is framed as the result of bad policy decisions, the need for new policy is more obvious.
In part two, I want to focus on the need to carry that alternate narrative, and it's flip side, consistently into our boardrooms, program planning meetings, and conversations with program participants. It's so easy to slip back into that belief that homelessness is the fault of the person experiencing it when it comes to assisting that person to regain housed status. On the one hand, we say homelessness is a policy choice and on the other, we name mental health and addictions as two key barriers to rehousing efforts, and treat shelter participants as if they don't know how to make good choices and take care of themselves.
Society already tends to shun the visibly homeless. We can inadvertently contribute to the social exclusion by layering on mental illness and addictions narratives, and undermining autonomy. This compounds what is for many the most profound negative impact of the homelessness experience. So much harm is done when a person is "othered" by society and social inclusion (aka community) is an often overlooked piece of the solving homelessness puzzle.
I'm fresh off our 3rd YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) Week here in Barrie, so I've been giving even more thought than usual to messaging around affordable housing and homelessness.
I have two strands of thought on this:
In this post I'll address the first - some thoughts on an alternate narrative to homelessness as the fault of the person experiencing it. Stay tuned for part two...
"Social service work addresses the needs of individuals reeling from the personal and devastating impact of institutional systems of exploitation and violence. Social change work challenges the root causes of the exploitation and violence." (The Revolution Will Not Be Funded)
How many of us got into the non-profit sector to do social change work, but ended up doing social service work? How many organizations does this happen to as a reaction to funding structures rather than a strategic decision?
Because there is no money for organizing, only for programs and projects, preferably new or pilot programs and projects (not proven ones, those are boring), but only for one year at a time, and certainly no more than 10% on overhead expenses, and you'd better buLIEVE the mandatory quarterly reports will suck your will to live.
That's because the Revolution.
What is a narrative?
In its simplest term, a narrative is a story. In systems change advocacy, when we refer to narratives, we’re referencing the deeply held beliefs that shape people’s actions. It’s not any one story, it is the collection of stories, memes, tweets, videos, sermons, books, and dinner table conversations that either help maintain the status quo or give momentum to a change movement.
There is a growing acknowledgement of the power these stories can have. Isabel Crabtree-Condor is a knowledge broker for Oxfam, and she describes narratives as the invisible force that hold things in place and prevents change, even shuts down conversations about change.
So, as the story goes, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) -- a temporary income support of $500 a week during the COVID-19 pandemic -- caused the overdose crisis. Or at least contributed to it heavily. This story is used to prop up the idea that giving money to people who use drugs is not in their own best interest (I've even heard it called a "death wish") because they'll use that money to buy a whole bunch of extra drugs, and die.
Friends, this story is startlingly accepted as fact, even among those who work to support people who use drugs.
But it's just not true.
In this post, I'll point to sources that debunk this myth, explain why it is very dangerous, and suggest a new narrative. (Because by now we know that saying, "No, CERB didn't cause the overdose crisis" just gives that false story oxygen. We need a new narrative using new words.)
Y'all, (<-- read that in a Brene Brown Texas accent please) I've just finished reading Change: How to Make Big Things Happen by Damon Centola, and I have so many things I want to download into the brains of everyone trying to disrupt for good.
Centola uses research and data to explain how spreading ideas and spreading behaviour change are very different, and the distinction between spreading ideas and having them adopted is one we need to familiarize ourselves with to have maximum impact. If you can read the book, do it. (I borrowed it from the library and then ended up buying a copy anyway to have for reference) If you can't, I'll be sharing a few of my hot takes here.
My friend Suzanna and I were given the opportunity, on behalf of the Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness, to write a blog post and letter to the editor as part of an ongoing campaign by Just Recovery Simcoe to keep topics like homelessness, racism, and the environment top of mind as our local COVID recovery is developed.
We used the opportunity to remind readers that housing is a right, and also to repeat a version of my favourite line about affordable housing:
Hello! Thanks for stopping by. I thought my first blog post should be a quick explanation of why things are changing around here.
As 2020 wore on, my peppy little change-the-world brand was fitting less and less. It felt inadequate. Maybe even inauthentic? I was feeling less peppy, and more pissed off. A CBC podcast I listen to sometimes was calling 2020 "Year K," because some people were actually benefitting from the pandemic, while others were absolutely bearing the brunt of the shutdowns and the health risks - there was a split. A divide. We were not all in this together.
And I watched/participated in the charitable sector's response. Most charities have always been about band-aid solutions - focused on addressing symptoms more than root causes. But I found this more and more frustrating in 2020.
I also saw some charities interpreting COVID-19 precautions and guidelines in ways that absolutely stripped program participants of their human rights - people with nowhere else to go being forced to swap dignity and privacy for shelter and food. Infantilized.