Most often, people experiencing homelessness – whether they be individuals or families – experience marginalization.
Where does this marginalization come from? It stems from a power differential between those that have housing and those that do not. Marginalization in this instance is the profound difference that exists across multiple aspects of life between those that have stable housing and those that do not. For example, those with housing are more likely to live longer, have better health, achieve better quality of life, feel more connected to others, achieve better education outcomes (comparing children in homeless families compared to housed families), etc.
One of the issues with marginalization is that we often see it as a result of the fault of an individual. It is not. A person having an addiction does not make that person a problem; addiction is the problem. A person experiencing unemployment is does not make that person a problem; unemployment is the problem. A person experiencing compromised mental wellness such as living with schizophrenia does not make that person a problem; mental health is the problem.
If our services and our supports are truly person-centered in our approach, we will find the strengths that exist in each person and look beyond labels. Services are then individually catered so that the person (family) informs the type, frequency, duration and intensity of services best suited to their specific needs. Options and choices so that informed decision-making can occur by the person experiencing marginalization becomes empowering – especially if we accept that mistakes will be made and it is not our job to prevent mistakes from occurring.
If our services and supports are more system-centered than person-centered in our approach, we will find a way to try and manage risk to programs, people and the community at large in the ways we determine who gets services and who does not. Quite often, a system-centered approach is implicitly social control – reinforcing expectations of how people should act, what is right and wrong, societal norms in a range of situations, what is taboo and what is acceptable, etc. A system approach places extreme limits on person decision-making and is generally intolerant of people making mistakes.
A person-centered approach helps people move beyond homelessness in a way that decreases or even allows for recovery from marginalization. A system-centered approach reinforces marginalization, especially if mistakes become punitive and result in longer homelessness or more marginalization.
If your approach to supports and services to people experiencing homelessness reinforces marginalization, dominance of service providers over the people it services, or subjects or exploits persons accessing services (up to and including using “graduates” to tell others how fabulous your programs were/are) then maybe it is time for a re-think of whether or not we truly want to support a structure were people are less peripheralized and more empowered.