HOMELESSNESS, AND THE ABSENCE OF PRIVACY

October 12, 2013

“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”

For those of us who have secure homes, this famous quote is true.  We experience it at the end of a long day, when we return from a long journey, and when we wake from a long and restful sleep.  Arriving at home, we can kick off our shoes and change into our comfy clothes.  We know where everything is, and where everything goes.  Having control over our surroundings, we can choose to be social and invite others over, or choose solitude instead by closing the curtains and locking the door.  For homeless people, who do not have secure homes, no such control exists.  There is a denial of one of the most basic benefits of home, one so familiar that it is often overlooked:  privacy.

The word privacy means many things to different people.  In fact, one article researched provides 17 different dimensions to the word.  Early notions of privacy were connected to private property, and invasions of privacy were connected to trespassing, or breaking and entering.  In modern times, we still hold these ideas of territory and the control over space.  We use locks and keys to create safety zones that protect us from danger, distress, over-stimulation and surveillance.  We feel violated when someone invades our personal space, rifles through our belongings, or burglarizes our homes.  We feel intruded upon when someone calls us late at night, when friends or neighbours drop by unannounced, or when telemarketers call during dinner.  Inside our padded nests, we benefit from some of the subtler dimensions of privacy:  solitude; refuge; reserve; and intimacy.

Having a place of refuge gives us control over what information we choose to reveal, when, and to whom.  No one needs to (or deserves to) know about your sex life, what illnesses you are battling, your level of personal debt, or how many drinks you had last night.  Privacy protects us from being misunderstood, denied well-deserved social advantages, and from being harshly or unfairly judged.

Another valuable benefit of privacy is intimacy.  People tend to behave differently when it is possible that actions or conversations may be witnessed or overheard; in public, we tend to self-observe.  Privacy allows for the gradual, selective, voluntary disclosure of personal information (even the true but slightly embarrassing stuff) that allows friendship and romantic love to spark and grow.  Intimacy depends on time and private space.  One of the reasons why there is no place like home is because of the close personal relationships that are nurtured there.

For homeless people, in comparison, exposure is constant…even in the only place they can call home which is the homeless shelter.

In a factory or storage facility, materials can be packed, stacked, labeled, and warehoused for quick reference and easy access.  Unfortunately, with similar ‘efficiencies’ in mind, many institutional settings treat people the same way.  In the design of hospitals, mental health facilities, prisons and homeless shelters, access to privacy is seldom part of the plan.  Although shelters are built as a social service, not for punishment, the similarities between shelters and prisons (in the effects they have on residents) are stark and unsettling.

In both cases, residents are in constant social contact, often being monitored by authorities –even while asleep.  One’s body or belongings can be made open for inspection.  Basic bodily functions must be performed with others close-by.  Intimacy, instead of being slow, gradual and by choice is immediate, imposed, even relentless.  You can never remove those heavy social masks that we all wear.  Unavailable are the normal distancing patterns that limit our contact with people who are loud, rude, disrespectful, or dangerous.  When someone rubs you the wrong way, you cannot escape to your office, car, backyard, or your home-theatre.  In both settings, not only are you more exposed, you are also exposed to more:  the activities of others; their bodily sounds and smells; snoring; teeth grinding; groans and nightmares.  One depressed, irritable, angry person can change the tone in a room with a single word…but in a shelter, you have no private place to go.  Even if everyone is getting along, you are still more exposed to communicable diseases -from the seasonal flu to tuberculosis.

Being overly-exposed in a shelter is a by-product of being overcrowded, which has its negative long-term effects.  A 1981 study of college freshmen in Florida found that crowded people expressed withdrawal behaviours such as feeling isolated and insignificant, or aggressive behaviours such as deliberately annoying others and starting fights to get what they wanted.  Most notably, however, crowded people translated limits experienced during restricted living conditions into lowered expectations for success in other areas of their lives.

Restricted living conditions have also caused negative effects closer to home.  In June 2012, violence erupted at Seaton House, Toronto’s largest men’s shelter, with one resident striking another in the head with a fire extinguisher –sending him to hospital with serious injuries.  Tension in shelters is not uncommon.  Long before this occurred, Street Health and many other homeless advocates had been saying that Toronto’s shelter system was under-resourced, over-burdened and unsafe.

Since early 2012, Street Health has participated in city consultations for the planning and redevelopment of the Seaton House men’s shelter.  Located on George Street, in Toronto’s downtown east side, this shelter presently houses 534 residents.  However, the existing structure, built in 1959, is overcrowded, crumbling, and ill-equipped to meet the needs of its expanding and aging clientele.  Of the various redevelopment plans being considered, the city’s favoured option includes 96 emergency shelter beds and 162 long-term care beds.  If adopted, this plan would mean the loss of 440 shelter spaces, with no existing alternative for the men who currently live there.  With demolition planned for early 2014, construction of new buildings not scheduled until 2017, long waiting lists for scarce affordable housing, and an overwhelmed shelter system –where are vulnerable citizens going to go?

Here at Street Health, in addition to providing nursing care, ID replacement, mental health support, and basic clothing and hygiene supplies, we also devote consistent and concerted advocacy efforts to help improve the living conditions of vulnerable citizens who are too often unheard.  The Seaton House redevelopment is presently identified as our highest advocacy priority.

In future city consultations, we will strongly encourage city planners to honour several key programs, services, and design components:  to retain the number of shelter spaces at current levels; to locate those spaces in the downtown area; to include Harm Reduction services and attitudes; to include service-users in consultations; and to observe high quality-of-care standards in their design of interior and exterior spaces…which ought to include increased levels of personal privacy.

We will continue to listen to clients’ concerns, and bring ideas to our meetings with other agencies and consumer-advisory panels.  It is on behalf of clients that we advocate, because as American author and poet Maya Angelou once said,

The ache for home lives in all of us,

the safe place where we can go

as we are

and not be questioned.

Sources:

Rosen, Jeffrey.  Why Privacy MattersThe Wilson Quarterly,2000.

Brierley-Newell, Patricia.  Perspectives on PrivacyJournal of Environmental Psychology, 1995.

Schwartz, Barry.  Deprivation of Privacy as a Functional Prerequisite:  The Case of the PrisonJournal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 1972.

Walden, Tedra, et alia.  Crowding, Privacy and CopingEnvironment and Behaviour Vol. 13, No. 2, 1981

Violence at Seaton House:   http://www.nowtoronto.com/news/story.cfm?content=187289

City of Toronto, Proposed redevelopment of Seaton House:  http://www.toronto.ca/legdocs/mmis/2013/ex/bgrd/backgroundfile-59666.pdf