Editor’s Note: Moving Beyond Ablesism is a quarterly column featuring the work of the Anabaptist Disabilities Network (ADNet) www.adnetonline.org and offers reflections from different authors on the various issues facing persons with disabilities.
By Deborah-Ruth Ferber
It’s another blustery autumn day in downtown Edinburgh. I zip up my coat prepared with a hoodie and sweater underneath and I brave the soon-to-be winter weather of rain, rain, and more rain. Since moving to Scotland I have discovered one thing: the weather can be cruel. It is no respecter of persons and it is not afraid to tease you with a hint of glimmering sunshine only to disappear for the rest of the day under a thick cloud of rain, hail, and wind. I have also discovered something deeper: in Edinburgh, just like in most major cities of the world, there is also no shortage of people who are homeless.
Everywhere I look I spot people living on the street, braving the rain. In the past two months since moving to this wondrous city voted as one of the best places in the world to live, I have begun to notice some of their faces. I have begun to enter into some of their stories. Across from the HMV store sporting the latest CDs and DVDs is a young woman from Bangladesh whose husband abused her and then abandoned her and her three children. A little further down the road is a retired war vet whose PTSD has driven him to the brink of delusion. Then there is the group of homeless street youth who flock together outside a local church with the thought that somehow their life will be better without their parents.
Since Edinburgh is a bustling city, it is often easy to ignore these people. To see them as a blur or to look the other way when they put out their tattered coffee cups to beg. Sometimes in smug indifference I tell myself that there is no way I can help all of them, so why bother.
I often am transported back to a time when I was living in Toronto (a major Canadian city) and was oftentimes approached by people seeking to take advantage of a naïve passerby. I am reminded of the times I have stopped to help one individual only to be bombarded by 10 more requests. These experiences have often left me at a place of conflicted motives – wanting to help, but being afraid of what the outcome could produce.
Yet, lately I have been thinking about the homelessness problem from a different perspective. It is no secret that many people who live on the street have mental health issues. For some issues of addiction, delusion, or what could be termed psychotic outbursts have driven them to the point of not being able to take care of themselves. For example, I think of a fine gentleman, a former professor at the local university who acquired a mental illness later in life which has since rendered him homeless on the streets shouting about who knows what. Yet deep inside he still harbours the awesome brilliance of a math genius. On the other hand, we also see people whose families were unable to take care of them sometimes and demanded their loved ones leave without properly safeguarding them for the dangers that lay ahead.
You see, mental illness, just like the Scottish rain, is no respecter of persons. According to a recent study put out by Sian Rees of the Public Health Resource Unit, the United Kingdom has seen a direct correlation between mental illness and homelessness. Rees shows how issues such as psychosis, suicidal ideation and attempts, and substance abuse are more prevalent among the homeless population than in the general society. Rees also demonstrates that the most prevalent illness of those who find themselves homeless is schizophrenia, with anywhere from 20-35% holding this diagnosis.
While there is no simple formula for solving the homelessness crisis, there are a few practical ways in which we can all work towards a more equitable society. Firstly, we can acknowledge those on the street as we walk past them. Many people who are homeless miss out on the natural love and warmth we so often take for granted. Even a simple smile or “hello” will be sure to brighten up anyone’s day. If we have a moment we can even ask them about their story – some may be more than willing to have a listening and non-judgmental ear. This all comes from the core conviction that each person is a unique being created and loved by God.
Second, we can work towards a greater understanding of the issues of homelessness and poverty that surround our communities. We can take a moment to learn about mental illness and the various ways in which our society stigmatizes those who find themselves in this camp. We can also realize that although in many ways we have made great improvements, there is still much work to be done in terms of funding and resources. We should not automatically assume that someone who is homeless has chosen this lifestyle for themselves, has intentionally neglected getting a job, or is lazy and unmotivated. Rather we should aim to see each individual as God sees them and try to be empathetic and accepting.
Finally, we can help in practical ways. It definitely is impossible to help the thousands that line the streets of Edinburgh each day, at least on a practical level. Nevertheless, there are other ways in which we can acknowledge the distress many face on a daily basis. Whether it’s volunteering at a local halfway house, buying a soft fruit or chocolate bar and giving it to a street person on your way out of the local grocery store, or simply offering a few words of encouragement, we are showing that no one has to live life on their own. Furthermore, if you live in a community that has extreme weather such as rain or snow, learn how this affects the homeless population. Perhaps donating mittens, hats, or ponchos to a local shelter or giving a blanket or warm sleeping bag to someone on the street could make a huge difference for them.
Homelessness is not a problem that will be solved easily; however, with determination and the right attitude, we can at least begin to make an impact. Next time you are in a major city, I want to encourage you – don’t just walk past the blur of faces, take time to really think about who each person is. Understand that each person has a story. Understand that you also have a story. And understand that even in the wake of mental illness, that story of incredible resilience and strength does not change. Once we recognize this, we are well on our way to creating a fairer and safer world.
 Sian Rees, “Mental Ill Health in the Adult Single Homeless Population: A Review of the Literature,” Public Health Resource Unit (PHRU), March 2009, http://www.crisis.org.uk/data/files/publications/Mental%20health%20literature%20review.pdf
Deborah-Ruth Ferber is a field associate with ADNet and currently living in a L’Arche Community in Edinburgh, Scotland.