From time to time, news reporters ask us to contribute to articles that shed light on the daily struggles that our clients endure. We are pleased to participate in these interviews as part of our mandate to assist in educating others about the impact that severe poverty has on the our clients’ quality of life. We also see this as an opportunity to clear up misconceptions, stereotypes, and prejudices that have the potential for the further subjugation of our clients.
There are a number of popular misconceptions about homeless people that need to be redressed. For example, there are those who suspect that all homeless people buy crack cocaine with their spare change; that they are, as a result of mental health issues, inept at handling or responsibly spending the few dollars in their pockets; or that the homeless are predatory “entrepreneurs”, out to make a quick buck rather than getting a real job. We encourage you to help dispel these misconceptions by replacing assumptions with facts and statistics, by relying on the decades of empirical research that Street Health and other agencies have conducted, and by realizing that perpetuating these myths actually worsens both the experience of homelessness and the barriers to escaping it.
While it is true that a large number of Toronto’s homeless population suffer from mental health concerns and addictions, these souls account for less than half of the homeless people on our downtown streets. This fact is statistically supported by the research of Dr. Stephen Hwang, of St. Michael’s Hospital, entitled: “Drug problems among homeless individuals in Toronto, Canada: prevalence, drugs of choice, and relation to health status”, which included the experience of almost 1,200 men and women at homeless shelters and meal programs in Toronto. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20181248
The original Street Health Report, http://www.streethealth.ca/Downloads/SHReportOriginal.pdf , published 20 years ago, not only measured the health of homeless people, but made direct comparisons to Toronto’s general population [as reported by the Toronto Community Health Survey, 1988]. This fact-based research found that: homeless people suffer from ongoing health issues at a rate 2 to 3 times that of the general population; those with lower average incomes are more likely to die from these conditions; roughly twice as many homeless smoke tobacco; 16.8% consumed alcohol daily, compared to 16% among the general population; although 68% reported using a substance other that alcohol to get high, the survey grouped together both licit and illicit drugs, thus including such substances as cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and prescription medications used for non-medicinal reasons. Myths abound despite the research-based conclusion that, “Homeless women and men do not have different health problems…what differs are the ways in which one’s living and economic circumstances affect one’s ability to cope with health problems”
Obstacles to improving economic circumstances for someone who is not housed are excessive, and perpetuating the myth that the majority of homeless people are addicts can cause great harm to the people who need our help most. Employers, landlords, legislators, police officers, hospital staff, and the media who believe these types of misrepresentations create barriers to employment, housing, healthcare, support, and personal safety for otherwise deserving people, and their families, as a result of unwarranted prejudices.
It is true that many homeless people suffer with various mental health issues, depression being the most prevalent. Some of them developed their state as a result of the living conditions surrounding their poverty and homelessness, and others ended up on the streets due to the repercussions of their circumstance. However, the fact is that one in five Canadian’s suffer from some form of mental health issue. The vast majority of people impacted are functioning and are not dangerous to others. This holds true for those who live in houses, and for those with mental health issues who live on our streets. Once again, popular misconceptions and scare tactics harm our clients and prevent them from finding stable jobs and homes. To quote the Canadian Mental Health Association website, http://www.cmha.ca/bins/content_page.asp?cid=3&lang=1 ,
“…the stigma experienced by people with a mental illness can be more destructive than the illness itself.”
It’s time we all started dispelling the myths surrounding mental health, regardless of the socioeconomic background of the sufferer.
The idea that homeless people would rather panhandle than work is another very harmful untruth, which implies that these supposed “entrepreneurs” ended up on the street by choice. In fact, many people end up unemployed and/or homeless by no fault of their own: injury, old age, disability, job loss, and the scarcity of affordable housing have left numerous people with no option but to lose their homes and live in shelters, temporary housing, or on the street. Once there, (and often due to untrue stereotypes) it is quite difficult to find employment without a fixed address; a telephone; access to a computer; or access to compassionate support. Layer on top of this a lack of security, increased stress, and fewer resources and you can image how difficult it is for many of our clients to rise above this level of poverty.
These are, despite over 20 years of research, but a few examples of the enduring misconceptions in our society that continue to endanger the people Street Health works to serve and protect. Your help in setting the record straight and raising the consciousness of your friends and colleagues will go a long way in improving the living conditions, and future possibilities, of the many individuals and families living on our streets.
Thank you for your help.