Perspective on perception

By Jamie Forget

The north wind, an unwelcome visitor, whips icy cold every time I open the door to the church. It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m working the door for Barrie Out of the Cold. I greet the guests as they stomp in to get out of the weather. That night we would serve food, provide lodging, and offer backpacks filled with necessities to approximately 40 people. The visitors are from very diverse backgrounds with one thing in common; they are all homeless.
Unfortunately, this scene is all too familiar in many of our communities. People are living on the street with very little, or no, support. Cold Canadian winters can become a death sentence to some if they can’t find shelter.
The homeless desperately need our help.
My priorities and perspectives on homelessness have changed over the years. Not that long ago I would avoid the issue. I didn’t go so far as to cross the street when approached by a homeless person; though I did quicken my pace, with hands in pockets, head down doing my best not to interact.
Caught up in the rat race of life, I used my busyness as an excuse not to get involved.
The more we can learn about the root causes of homelessness, the less likely we will be to make moral judgements. Education on the three main causes of homelessness is the first step in erasing the stigma.
Structural factors are economic and societal in nature and include poverty and access to affordable housing. Systems failures occur when our social services break down, in some way, and include lack of mental health and addiction services. Individual circumstances may include traumatic events, mental health and addiction challenges, as well as domestic violence.
The reasons for an individual ending up on the street are most likely a combination of these factors and is rarely as clear cut as the misconception that the homeless are lazy or drug addicts.
As I began to understand that structural factors and systemic failures of communities potentially carry more weight than individual circumstances and poor choices, my perspective on the issues changed.
Who was I to judge the person huddled in the storefront trying to keep warm? Was she there because of many bad decisions, or had the system failed?
I now make eye contact and conversation. Sometimes I buy coffee, sometimes I give change. I give out information on our shelters and the services offered.
In short, I offer my humanity.
Soup kitchens and shelters are stop-gaps and not solutions, but remain so important for those on the street. As a volunteer it is the easiest way to get involved, and a street level introduction to social justice.
You can help by cooking food for your local shelter, donating food or clothing, or donating money to organizations that aid the homeless in your community. For the ambitious, you could learn more about affordable housing organizations and volunteer to help tackle the problem from a structural perspective.
If your skills are more geared to a less physically active approach you could write letters to your local politicians, encouraging them to provide more affordable housing options and to increase the social services available for our most vulnerable.
Our uniqueness is our strength! By using our diverse talents, we can mount a three-prong attack on the systemic and individual causes of homelessness.
Many will say the problem of homelessness is too big to tackle. I say, how can we not try.

© 2019 Jamie Forget

Jamie Forget is an elementary school teacher in Barrie Ontario. Actively involved in social justice issues, locally and globally, Jamie regularly blogs at

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