Words Matter: No One Truly Wants to Be Homeless

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We are focusing on choice. Often in the conversation about homelessness and the people who find themselves in these desperate situations, comments will be made about choice. “That person is choosing to sleep outside” or “that person wants to be homeless because they choose to not follow rules” or “that person struggling with a debilitating addiction has to make the choice to get clean and sober”. These comments dangerously oversimplify the situation and work to portray those who are mired in poverty as somehow deserving of their status because of choices they have made.

Our experience in supporting marginalized and vulnerable people has shown us that in fact the opposite is true. No one that we’ve met truly wants to be homeless. Or addicted to substances. Or to suffer with a mental illness. Instead, people seek ways to cope with the overwhelming situations and circumstances in which they find themselves. A person with a mental illness is often discriminated against and faces increased challenges in obtaining employment and subsequently in being able to afford rent. Once excluded from access to basic needs, it is a natural response to seek to numb oneself and to shut out the rest of the world. The substances available and distributed on our streets are extremely addictive and dangerous, often laced with a destructive mix of ingredients.

After years in this cycle of poverty, mental illness and substance misuse, I don’t believe it is appropriate to still say that each person is making a choice. We need to examine our system and how we support individuals who are struggling. To simply say “that’s their choice” is for us to choose to turn our backs on those in need. That is not a choice we should make.

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