This post was shared with us from the YWCA, and speaks to how important belonging is to all people, especially those who are most vulnerable in our society. Thanks to Elizabeth Clarke and the YWCA for sharing!
Knowing other people care:
The importance of community to women who have experienced homelessness
By Elizabeth Clarke, CEO, YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo
People who are homeless are far more likely to be victims of crime than are people who are housed. One Toronto study determined that 46% of homeless women and 39% of homeless men surveyed had been physically assaulted within the previous year. Homeless youth fared worst of all, with 69% reporting having been attacked. Another study found that sexual assaults against women who are homeless are both more frequent and more violent than those against women who are housed<sup>1</sup>. Preventing crimes against vulnerable people by supporting them as they move through homelessness to housing is one of the priorities of YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo.
It goes almost without saying that the overarching cause of homelessness is poverty, but not all people who are poor become homeless. Not all people who become homeless stay that way for long. Some of the factors that make it more likely that poor people will become and stay homeless include mental illness, addiction, cognitive or physical disability, family breakdown and social isolation. And social isolation is a much bigger part of the destructive cycle of homelessness than most people realize.
People who are homeless can experience social isolation because they’re separated from their families and communities, because prejudice and fears about homelessness keep others at a distance, and sometimes because their own shame about their circumstances prevents them from reaching out to others. As their social isolation increases, over time their social skills can diminish, and with the erosion of their social skills can come the loss of even more of their already depleted circle of support. The absence of social support causes problems like higher rates of mental health issues and physical illnesses, increased use and abuse of drugs and alcohol, and engagement in risky sexual behaviours. Thus, social isolation doesn’t just worsen the pain of homelessness, it perpetuates and strengths the cycle itself.
Among our other programs, YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo offers emergency and transitional and permanent, affordable housing to women and families and trans individuals who are or have been persistently homeless. We try to build housing and supports that make the people whom we serve know that they are welcome and valued members of our community, because we believe that this knowledge is critical to their mental and physical well-being and to their future housing stability. So that we could better understand and enhance their experiences of social inclusion, over the winter and spring of 2013 we asked the tenants in one of our housing programs to join us over coffee and cookies in some conversations about community.
The women who came together had all been homeless prior to coming to our program. Some had been housed with us for as few as four months, others as many as 24 years. The women told us about the things we do well to foster their sense of belonging and about some things we should do better. And they told us that it was their building’s community feeling – not its bricks and mortar – that made them feel supported and secure. They said that it was having people to turn to in times of sickness or crisis, having people to encourage them to overcome their challenges and reach their goals, to share activities and interests, simply having people to talk to, that made them feel safe. It was, in the words of one woman, ‘knowing other people care’ that made them feel that they finally had a home.
YWCA Kitchener-Waterloo is privileged to have the resources to provide the buildings and the professional, formal supports that some people who are homeless require. But for just about all homeless people, informal social supports can make the experience of
homelessness more bearable and much safer. For some people, such supports can be all it takes to break the cycle of homelessness. Share a meal with a diner at St. John’s Kitchen. Play a card game with a guest at an Out of the Cold site. Teach a new skill to a youth at ROOF. Stop and listen to the story of somebody on the street. Give of yourself, emotionally and practically, for just a few minutes or a few hours, to make a critical difference in the mental and physical health, happiness, confidence, stability and safety of a vulnerable person.
1. Centre for Urban and Community Studies, University of Toronto, Research Bulletin #37, September 2007Tags: YWCA