One Big Thing

Empathy is a difficult thing to practice. How do we honestly go about having a true identification with, or vicarious experience of the thoughts, feelings, or attitudes of another? If you have never been chronically homeless before, in which ways can you go about deepening your understanding of what it is like to move into housing and go through the radical and disruptive change that comes with doing so?

That's right - radical and disruptive change. Think of any big change you want to make in your own life. Bet it sounds great...the outcome that is. Conceptually, we LOVE change. The practice of change, though, is really, really difficult. It is no wonder, then, that for a person or family experiencing chronic homelessness the concept of being housed is a welcome one that is likely to stir up a range of emotions from elation to fear (sometimes concurrently). But the practice of staying housed is a really difficult one. 

Let's explore why a little deeper - and then I have a request for you.

If you have been homeless for a long time, and have a disabling condition, but you have remained alive, there comes a time psychologically when you are no longer working to get yourself out of homelessness. There's like a switch that goes off. And once that switch is flipped you go from trying to escape homelessness to trying to survive or even thrive within homelessness. Your day to day routine is one of being the best person experiencing homelessness you can be. You know where to get food. You know where to attend to hygiene needs. You know where to get clothes. You know where to hang out. 

Along comes you (or someone like you) who, in a nutshell says, "Do you want housing?" and to that person who has experienced homelessness for a long time this is, in many instances, going to sound conceptually like a really good idea. If you were that person who has thrived within homelessness, you can likely see the benefits of preparing what you want to eat rather than what is served on that day. If you were that person, you can see the benefits of using your own toilet and shower rather than sharing one with others or signing up for your turn. If you were that person, you can likely see the benefits of locking your own door to feel safer. If you were that person, you can likely see the benefits of determining your own schedule of when you will go to sleep and when you will rise. 

None of this means there isn't concern or suspicion. None of this means there is no anxiety. However, the idea of putting this change into practice is alluring and feels worth doing.

Then it happens. And the transition is a hard one. Yes, some of the benefits are realized. But it is also really hard to sustain the change. Why? Because there is a complete disruption of routine and so much of what the person that was homeless knew how to do to keep themselves alive and even thrive. Now there is budgeting for groceries and light bulbs and toilet paper. Now there is cleaning up after meals and the apartment as a whole. Now there is loneliness. Now there are challenges not foreseen.

That same person may want to go back to that which was most familiar - homelessness. That same person who was so excited to have housing may be in a position to give up the thing there were excited to have in order to go back to life before the change. Because change is hard.

Now the request for you to try and increase your empathy. 

I want you to think about one BIG change you need to make in your life. To determine what this type of change needs to be, it has to meet the following conditions: it has to be something important to you; it has to be the sort of change that will disrupt your life in some way; it has to be something that would be of benefit to you; and, it has to be hard to accomplish. Some examples of the sort of change you may want to make: repairing a relationship; investing more time to be with your children; maintaining a higher level of cleanliness in your house and car and office; losing weight; quitting smoking and/or drinking; forming a relationship/friendship with someone you have always wanted to have a connection with; maintaining a chronic health condition better.

Then, I want you commit to doing it for 100 days minimum. I want you to keep track of your progress and your setbacks. I want you to spend time discerning how you feel throughout the change process. As you are comfortable, I want you to share your change with others, and all that goes with it. I want you to own every time you feel like giving up and going back to how your life was before you started the change process, and what you did to keep going. And then I want you to try and relate this back to how a chronically homeless person may feel in trying to sustain the change they are going through when they move into housing.

Remember, change is hard - and if you get through 100 days you will have to keep working to sustain the change still. For example, did you know that 6 out of 7 people that have a heart attack return to the lifestyle that caused their heart attack within 18 months of having their heart attack? That's how hard change is to sustain - even when it is a matter of life or death.

And here is my change that I will own out loud in this blog for transparency and which has been an issue in my life ever since I broke my hip a number of years back - I am going to take the steps necessary to lose 38 pounds. I need to for the sake of my health. It will be hard because I most often eat in restaurants and spend a lot of time on planes in a sedentary environment. It will come with sacrifice because when I am home I would much rather spend time with my kids than go out and exercise. I have had setbacks in previous attempts. I will see how close I move the needle towards achieving the goal within the first 100 days. Through my struggles to achieve this, I hope to deepen my empathy with just how hard change really is to accomplish. What will you do?

About Iain De Jong

Iain is a playful nerd, hellbent on ending homelessness, increasing affordable housing, creating vibrant communities, and expanding the knowledge amongst leaders that influence social issues. Having held senior management and professional positions in government, non-profits, and the private sector, Iain has a wealth of experience and has garnered dozens of awards for his work across Canada and internationally. His work has taken him across Canada, the United States, and to Australia. In 2009, Iain joined OrgCode as its President & CEO, and in 2014 assumed full ownership of the firm. In addition to his work with OrgCode, Iain holds a part-time faculty position in the Graduate Urban Planning Programme at York University.


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