Hello readers! My name is Nigel. I work on homelessness. I’m not a front-line worker. I’m not a service provider. I’m not a social worker. I’m a guy who used to be homeless, and I focus on human rights and homelessness. The first thought that comes to mind when I mention this is usually: “Oh, so you advocate for affordable housing?” Yes and no. While I do agree we need affordable housing because homeless communities are in crisis, I think just addressing homelessness at a housing level doesn’t deal with the fact we are living in a broken society.
Of course, I’m all in favor of providing safe, adequate and affordable housing to homeless communities, but there are more systemic issues at place. One thing that impacted me when I was on the streets was how the homeless community was treated. I’ve been spat on, assaulted, told to die, refused service at restaurants (even when I had the money). I was given the runaround when trying to vote. I’ve been kicked out of restaurants that did serve me by police officers. I was completely sober. My only crime was being homeless. This is a regular occurrence for many. The idea that the homeless community faces direct systemic discrimination is often foreign to many. It’s not so much that society denies the discrimination exists. It’s just that it’s always been so acceptable and even encouraged to openly and brazenly target the homeless for discrimination. The idea that we have to earn to the right to vote, order food, peacefully hang out in a park, it all seems foreign to us, but as we pass laws to make buildings and businesses more accessible, we simultaneously pass laws to exclude the homeless and prevent them from accessing public places. I don’t like to consider myself an advocate, not in the traditional sense. I consider myself an “engager.” Along with peers at Poverty Talks, and the Client Action Committee, I engage. I engage the homeless community to keep on top of what’s happening to them on the streets. I also engage the public. I engage individuals, such as you who is reading the article, I engage schools and children, I engage politicians and policy makers, and I engage community organizations and service providers. All to ensure that we remember that human lives should be treated like human beings, because if we treat them like a monster while they are on the streets, how do we expect them to maintain a home? Besides, saying housing is a human right is one thing, but if we’re actively admitting the homeless don’t deserve rights, then what good is affordable adequate and safe housing as a right?
What can you do? First, just treat the homeless better if you haven’t done so already. For decades Calgary has had a social policy geared towards making the homeless invisible. You can do the opposite. Smile more. Or even a small nod acknowledging their existence if you see someone who may be homeless. You don’t need to talk at length or anything. Just a little acknowledgement that we exist. Secondly, get involved. Talk to your school or your children’s school about inviting someone who has been homeless to speak to the class. This might seem scary at first, but a bit of prep between the teacher and the speaker beforehand should help ensure that the message is appropriate to children of that grade. If your place of business is doing a fundraising campaign for a service provider, invite someone from the streets to participate in a campaign event. Thirdly, call your MLA and your MP and demand that social condition – including homelessness, be considered grounds for discrimination in all human rights legislation. Together, when we actively engage each other and learn from one another, we can create a world where Dignity is not tied to a set of keys.
Nigel Kirk Twitter: https://twitter.com/nkirk4homeless