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Homelessness in Vancouver: How we can challenge the stigma

Photo Credit: Jason Payne

When a homeless man was soaked with a bucket of water by a Tim Horton’s employee in downtown Vancouver, a social media campaign erupted on twitter and facebook calling for a boycott of the Robson Street location.

Unfortunately, this is not the only incident where a homeless person has been abused in Vancouver. The Tyee cited a University of Ottawa report that discovered while 78% of homeless people had been victims of mistreatment, only 21% reported it to the police indicating that homeless people experience a high level of victimization. Frequently, homeless people are blamed for their predicament, which further fuels the stigma surrounding them.   

The first step to addressing this stigma is to inspect our own thoughts and reactions. Think about your last encounter with a homeless person. Maybe you averted your eyes by bleating on your cellphone, or perhaps in an attempt to help you offered a gift card to the homeless person waiting outside a nearby grocery store, or maybe you were in a hurry and opted to avoid any eye contact altogether. Some of us perhaps really want to help, but end up fearing our personal safety in the presence of a homeless person.  

One of the reasons why people react so differently is because we have varying perceptions of homelessness. Our perception and interaction with the homeless is steeped in cultural and social anxieties as well as laced with emotions like fear, pity, empathy and sometimes apathy.

But we need to ask ourselves, who is this individual and what are the unique circumstances that lead them to live their life on the streets? What is their story?

In order to truly understand homelessness, we have to get out of our comfort zones and talk to people. There are more than 3000 homeless people living in downtown Vancouver.  Here are a few things you can do:

1.     First and foremost, it is important to seek more information to stay informed.  Take some time to learn about how losing one’s home can affect a person’s safety, identity and self-esteem. Oftentimes, homeless people are also part of other marginalized groups such as those with mental illnesses and physical disabilities.

2.     When you encounter a homeless person in a safe environment, respond with kindness. Many homeless people feel invisible, so a great way to communicate is to start with a simple “Hi” or “Good morning”. If the person is open to talking, it could lead to a real conversation. If asked for money and you don’t feel comfortable, respond with “I’m sorry, I don’t have change. Take care” instead of ignoring them.

3.     Volunteer at a local shelter/soup kitchen. This is an opportunity to help directly by sharing your time and energy.   It will expose you to different people experiencing homelessness. 

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