A big part of my job at Heading Home is recruiting volunteers and while doing that sharing what exactly Heading Home does and why it is so effective. I talk to people on the phone and in person at volunteer fairs and at awareness events depending on needs and situations. I have been consistently intrigued in how negative language surrounding people experiencing homelessness manifests itself when I mention that Heading Home is an organization working to end homelessness in the Albuquerque area.
Two frustrating conversations in particular have been stuck in my head. The first one was having someone ask if I would come pick up a “homeless person” from behind a dumpster near their house and a second conversation was about how homeless people should be shipped out of the Albuquerque area all together because “homeless people are disgusting and dangerous”. My response to both conversations was a patient educational conversation about the services Heading Home offers that help people experiencing homelessness who are high utilizers of emergency systems and people who have been chronically experiencing homelessness. I focus on how we connect to people who are living the longest and are suffering the most on our streets, we seek to help them find resources, we shelter them and then we try to find permanent housing for them. As well as having part of the conversation surround the idea that homelessness is a problem that with the correct cost effective tools can have a solution, and that Heading Home believes we have the solution.
When considering conversations around homelessness I think it is important to know and to remember that the average person experiences homelessness for only 1-2 nights. There are many paths that lead to homelessness some examples are but not limited to job loss, death of a family member, and illness . The intentional language used to discuss homelessness is key. For example instead of calling someone a homeless person I say a person experiencing homelessness because I believe a person should never be defined by their situation. It is also important to acknowledge that homelessness is an important complex situation that many metropolitan areas are currently facing.
A story that I often hear at Heading Home is about a man ironing his three piece suit at one of our emergency shelters. When asked what he was doing, he said he was on his way to church and it became clear that the people at his church had no idea he was experiencing homelessness. I think this story matters because it explores the idea that you never know what someone is going through based on outward appearances.
I would like to challenge you to think about the ways in which you approach discussions around people experiencing homelessness and moving forward when having conversations to do so respectfully. I think it is also important to remember homelessness is a much more complex issue than some of the stereotypical ways the media approaches it.