Museums of Suffering

The tour. You have been on one or given one. You walk through a homeless shelter or day centre or spend a night on an outreach van or a morning at a soup kitchen. You see the things that go on there. You meet the people – the program participants, residents and clientele; the staff; the volunteers. When these same buildings and programs are anchored in more traditional models rather than being focused on rapid exit from homelessness into housing they become, by definition, homelessness as a museum – objects of historical, scientific, artistic or cultural interest are stored and exhibited.

People that experience longer term homelessness are more prone to die. At some point for the observer the question of why the person is homeless and how to end it becomes a question of when the person will pass away. They can become resigned to what they see as inevitable.

Sadness is the cost of being able to smile once in a while. All of us are relative in our perspective and perceptions of the world around us. Seeing homelessness from a place of sympathy rather than empathy can bring the voyeur happiness. Every time someone remarks, “There but for the grace of god go I” it is easy to see relief.

Trauma-informed service delivery compels us to work with people. We are not to do things to another person or for another person. In being transparent in this process, the intent is to build trust. With emotional safety created, we are to be catalysts for building connections that endure and offer the assistance the person needs. In many homeless facilities, we forget all of this. Think of the program that makes people graduate through different dormitories or privileges gained for obedience to fulfilling program milestones. Think of the programs that bring in untrained volunteers to engage with people about the most intimate details of their life during moments of exceptional vulnerability.

Museums of suffering have special exhibits as well. Exhibit A, the woman that graduated from the program that lays out her story to self-sufficiency on the website, revealing the most intimate details of her suffering and progress along the way. Exhibit B, the man that is invited to speak at your Annual General Meeting to regale others with his story of despair to stability, all because of everything your organization did for him. Exhibit C, the family that you put the media in contact with just after Thanksgiving to outline how they got out of shelter and now have a shot at the future, as the journalist probes their addiction, parenting, educational treatment, traumatic past, ability to budget, and how they meet their most basic needs. For all of these Exhibits, whether named or not, the intent is to heap praise on the curator for putting on such a display, which means more money. It is a tragedy in slow motion to watch this happen. It is the horrific event that one wishes they could stop when everything seems to slow down around you. And these types of exhibits are so commonplace we cheer them on, and wait for them.

Einstein once remarked that gravity should not be held responsible for two people falling in love. Gravity should not be held responsible for people falling deeper into despair either. Each page of our life cannot be rewritten. Yet most museums of suffering make program participants essentially re-read each page over and over again. It is as if somewhere in a dusty old vault the museum is going to pull out a time machine and allow us to go back in time and reverse course. Impossible.

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,” remarked Hanlon. Perhaps it is not that those involved are malicious. Perhaps it is that they are not well informed. But one has to wonder when the tipping point of knowledge will occur. If I had a nickel for every instance a service provider has told me housing is not the answer for their clients’ homelessness but [insert: substance use recovery, Christ, medication management, budgeting, life skills, parenting classes, anger management, employment, etc.] is, then I know that the museum industry is booming. Because even when all of these are the wrong answer, people still give them gobs of money as if it is a sound investment on the best guess of what to do.

I believe that sweat holds more value than tears. We have to work harder. We have to work smarter. We have to demand that we do that which will end homelessness. We have to stop displaying the homelessness of others for our gain. We have to stop showing off volunteers and staff as proof of our importance. We have to stop thinking one more walk through of a dorm or commercial kitchen or waiting room is the answer. We need to bid adieu to uncertainty and embrace that housing is the only known cure to homelessness. And when a person or family needs supports, we provide those in housing.

To do anything else is akin to preparing another exhibit for the museum of suffering.



About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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