For more than 20 years, Salvation Army officer Major Karen Hoeft served as an emergency shelter director in cities across Canada. This is an excerpt from the chapter she contributed to a new book, Beyond Shelters: Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines, which explores the changing role of shelters in the fight against homelessness.
I say that people live in homeless shelters, and NOT that homeless people live in shelters. We need to intentionally see everyone who comes and stays in a shelter as a person first, and all too often, that’s forgotten. This sounds basic, but it happens all the time—we refer to “the homeless.” Community leaders and advocates come together to solve the problem of “the homeless” in their community. This label—“homeless”—comes with all kinds of baggage. People have a picture in their minds of what a “homeless person” looks and acts like. These are often negative stereotypes that represent only a small minority of the people who actually reside in emergency shelters in Canada.
So what could we call the people who stay in emergency shelters instead to reflect this lesson—clients, residents, patrons, guests? I propose that we call them people. We need to get to know their names. They are first and foremost human beings. They have personhood; they are individuals with thoughts, feelings, behaviours and history. They have a mother and a father (whether they know them or not), extended family—children, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—and a family history. They have friends and neighbours; teachers and fellow students; former bosses and co-workers. They have a status in our country: citizen, landed immigrant, student, refugee, migrant or visitor. They love and are loved. They have values and characteristics that are deep and powerful.
I have come to recognize that story is the key.
I am always amazed when people are surprised if a person, who happens to be homeless, helps a stranger in distress. It often makes the headlines. But why are we surprised? Many people I have met on my journey in homeless shelters would give their life for mine if I was in danger.
They each have a name:
Brian, we cried together at the funeral of a common friend.
Christine, we talked about our clothes and how they reflect what we think about ourselves.
Joey, he taught me about pain and alcohol while we played cribbage.
Patricia, she always requested the same song and cried every time I sang it for her.
Ashley, who humbled me by his willingness to share his story so others could learn from it.
Edward, he could always get me to laugh.
Archie, who broke my heart when he passed away.
Doris, she reminded me that we were on the same journey as women.
Bradley, he allowed me to speak on his behalf when he had no words left.
These people represent so many I have known. They were without homes, but they are so much more than “the homeless.” Both inside and outside of homeless shelters we need to begin with language that acknowledges this or we de-humanize and exclude the very people we are trying to include.
People live in homeless shelters, not homeless people live in shelters. Let’s start with the resolve that we will see each individual first and foremost as a person, who lives and breathes; feels happiness and sadness; acts out in caring ways and in frustrating ways; who gets it right as well as makes mistakes. We need to do this for moral reasons, but also for very practical ones. Shelters need to remind the people who flow through their facilities that they have abilities, skills and opinions, and are able to contribute them to whatever community they eventually rejoin. Community expects members to give to it and not just take from it. Thus, job one at the shelter is to reconnect individuals to themselves in a way that empowers them to retake their full and legitimate place in community. When people who were once homeless are indeed able to take their place with the confidence they are the equal of those in the community, their risk of returning to the shelter is diminished dramatically.
Accordingly, every shelter, including the ones I have run, needs to have the capacity to patiently listen to the stories of the people who are staying with them. Providing a caring environment where the story can be told and helping the teller to discover the beauty and potential it offers for a better life are professional competencies we need to have at the shelter. I have come to recognize that story is the key. When we categorize or label people, we don’t take time to hear their story. Everyone has a story and they all are different, but there are some common paths that can lead to being homeless and also to being housed. However, in our haste to help people, we may assume we know their story. Each person’s story is unique—even siblings do not share the same story. When we take the time to listen to another person’s story, we validate their life experience and their journey. Their own story is the key that helps unlock the door to their future.
Major Karen Hoeft is the corps officer at Edmonton Crossroads Community Church in Alberta.
Photo: © Kenishirotie/iStock.com
Beyond Shelters: Solutions to Homelessness in Canada from the Front Lines is available for purchase at amazon.ca.