Breaking Down Social Stigmas to Help Alleviate Poverty and Homelessness
Colin is an elderly veteran from Blackpool, a seaside town in the United Kingdom. One of the nation’s poorest cities, Blackpool is beset with crippling child poverty rates (29.5 percent), homelessness, and poor health. Colin lives alone and often finds it hard to make conversation with strangers who shy away from his friendly approaches or ignore him. It got to the point where he would call 999 (U.K.’s version of 911) daily just so he could talk to someone.
While we often focus on the material manifestations of poverty and hardship, the emotional consequences are debilitating as well. This point is crucial during the holiday season, when charity and compassion are rightly emphasized. But while giving is much needed, human connection is often left out of the equation and we become a divided society of helpers and the helpless.
Those struggling and down on their luck – including individuals facing poverty, homelessness, drug addiction and previous incarceration – are often stigmatized and isolated because of their deemed helplessness. The common perception being that these individuals made poor life choices and need to live with the consequences. This kind of societal reaction is devastating and can often exacerbate people’s already dire situations.
For instance, after leaving prison individuals face significant barriers in reentering the workforce and reconnecting with friends and family. This lack of attachment can exacerbate the risk of repeating criminal behavior. A 2014 study across 30 states by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 77 percent formerly incarcerated individuals are arrested within five years of their release.
Additionally, senior citizens who live alone or in someone’s care are more likely to feel the extreme effects of loneliness and the lack of human interaction. According to a study from the University of California-San Francisco, 43 percent of older adults felt lonely, yet only 18 percent were living alone at the time. And those who identified as experiencing loneliness were 59 percent more likely to see a decline in their health.
Isolation is also dangerous. Those experiencing homelessness face hostility and even violence solely because they lack housing and/or shelter. Between 2014 and 2015, there were 199 assaults of homeless individuals (53 of them fatal). And these statistics understate the problem given that so many attacks go unreported.
Back in Blackpool, Colin eventually stumbled upon the “Living Room,” a public space designed to foster community and help address loneliness. The program provides a place for people to provide each other with informal support and company. Maff Potts, who launched the space as a part of the nonprofit Camerados mission, spent years working with charities on homelessness issues in the U.K. and realized that current programs only addressed the physical problem of being homeless with temporary housing. What was missing was giving people a sense of purpose.
The concept of Maff’s Living Room is simple: a safe, judgment-free space where comfort, kindness and a cup of tea are on the menu. Colin rediscovered his love for gardening and asked Maff if he could care for the Living Room’s many plants. He is now in charge of all the plants on its premises.
Another regular, who lost his job and friends from alcohol addiction, began helping out by welcoming newcomers to the Living Room. He now handles the Camerados’ social media accounts and is looking forward to a career in digital communications.
I first met Maff earlier this year through a consultant we had brought on to help us think through how to build an organization that was truly inclusive and encouraged all to participate in building a kinder world. It was clear to both of us that the vision and purpose behind the Living Room had resonance well beyond the U.K.
Maff’s much-needed idea will soon be brought to the U.S. by kindness.org, a new nonprofit I co-founded that also operates on the premise that real change can come from the smallest of acts of kindness. The stateside Living Rooms, like their U.K. counterparts, are meant to supplement the necessary social service programs that address poverty and promote opportunity. The hope is that those who are receiving assistance will also have a space to interact with others free from labels and stigma, and that everyone will benefit from participating in reciprocal acts of kindness.
This holiday season and beyond, we should think about more than just monetary support when it comes to charity. For the family you offered to buy gifts for, include a card with a nice personalized note. For the person you see sitting alone on a sidewalk, offer them a cup of coffee and some company. And then, let them pay it forward.
Jaclyn Lindsey is the co-founder of kindness.org.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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