Insensitive & Desensitized

How do we get people to care about homelessness?

That question comes up a lot. Sometimes "people" means the general public. Other times it is elected officials. Sometimes it is the business community or the police. It also refers to homeless service providers in some instances.

I wish there was a magic answer. 

The truth is, homelessness - as we see it on the streets, queuing outside of homeless services, presented on the news and in media - has been with us for so long in its present form that the general result is being insensitive or even desensitized.

When the response is one of insensitivity, those that feel sensitive about homelessness feel enraged or sad. They ask - how could someone suggest that being without a home be criminalized? Or, why do some people just want those that are homeless to move along? Or, do they not see that we are talking about human beings with parents and even siblings or children?

Perceptions and actions based upon insensitivity are not solely expressions of those outside of homeless services. When there is mounting evidence of interventions that work better than others, it can be seen as insensitive when a homeless service provider or Continuum of Care or Service Manager makes or supports decisions that are not aligned to evidence. Those that have heightened sensitivities ponder how someone cannot follow the evidence and do what is right.

A parallel phenomenon is dealing with people that have become desensitized to homelessness and the realities of day to day life when homeless. People encounter homelessness every single day. Once upon a time they cared about it. They were shocked by it. They were bothered by it. They questioned how their society allowed it to happen. They wanted to see somebody do something to help those that were impacted by homelessness. A combination of emotions from pity and sympathy through to anger and frustration by it were common. 

But then, with each passing day, encountering homelessness became normalized. The feelings subsided. Rather than seeing homelessness as a tragedy or catastrophe or failing of policy or a reflection of society, they stopped seeing it at all. Or, they expected to see people in parks, on sidewalks, panhandling at off ramps; they expected to see tents and structures on their way to work. 

With both insensitivity and becoming desensitized, those that experience homelessness are seen as the "other". The language is quite telling. Phrases like "those people" and "the homeless" become commonplace. People that are homeless are not seen as equals. People that are homeless are seen as less than. And in that hierarchy of human worth, people are quick to blame people for their homelessness or see it through the lens of labels and stereotypes that are likely ill-informed...alcoholic, lazy, crazy, violent, ungrateful, dependent, scourge, troublemaker, criminal. The same feelings they label and attribute to the condition of homelessness become the same feelings that drive their NIMBYism lest housing and supports be suggested near where people live, work or recreate. Trying to penetrate these feelings with fact or an alternate way of seeing homelessness can be met with further entrenchment or statements of having given money through their place of worship or to the United Way or some other charity that is meant to prove that they have cared and that should not be held accountable to actions that still demonstrate an insensitivity or that they have actually become desensitized.

So, what to do?

Insensitivity and becoming desensitized to homelessness are emotional reactions to the condition of not having a home. Presenting facts and logic to those that respond and view things emotionally will have limited benefits unless you find a way to connect emotionally on the issue first. Gathering an emotional connection rarely happens well through an education campaign or slathering bus stops and billboards with poverty porn. Building emotional connection is an iterative process that takes time and considerable effort. It requires finding places and times to communicate about the issues of homelessness. It (at times painfully) means listening, acknowledging and appreciating that the insensitivity or the process by which they became desensitized came as a result of experiences or feelings of inaction. It could be argued that most people that find themselves engaged in insensitive acts towards those that are homeless or that have become desensitized to homelessness did not just one day wake up and decide to be that way. Something happened (or did not happen) that led them to feeling that way. Those that are sensitive to the issues need to create space and time to hear and acknowledge that, while legitimizing their feelings and correcting assumptions without anger or negative assumptions regarding their motivations. Resolving conflict means getting to maybe before getting to yes. Resolving conflict means finding common ground.

And finally, there is the question of what you would want people to do if they did become sensitive to the issues of homelessness again? Is your motivation that they will stop engaging in actions that work against what you are trying to achieve to end homelessness? Is your motivation that they will be more humane? Is it your motivation that they will give your organization more money or resources? Is your motivation that you will have champions for your next housing project rather than more naysayers? If you cannot name the benefits of having people that have become insensitive or desensitized turning their feelings around, it kind of begs the question of what difference it would make to expend all of that effort to connect and educate them. Name your purpose for engagement and chances are your engagement becomes driven by mission and values which can be lived in action.

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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