Image by K.Ho

Homelessness is Not a Choice

I am deeply indebted to the Coast Salish people, the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam nations on whose unceded lands I think, teach, learn, and write. With my heartfelt gratitude.

It is springtime again and the Five Days for the Homeless Campaign has recently concluded at UBC. The campaign’s website states that student participants had to make five days of “personal sacrifices for the betterment of their community,” and suspend any sense of comfort to raise awareness on the issues of homelessness in Vancouver. The students camped outside of the Irving K. Barber library with their accoutrements – sleeping bags, pillows, cardboard signs asking for donations for the homeless.

While I applaud these student’s well meaning intentions, I am appalled at this misguided attempt to raise awareness. It trivializes homelessness, removes it from the larger systemic context of social inequality (aka capitalism), and invisibilizes the effects of settler colonialism and racism of which homelessness is a by product and a symptom. For example, there was no mention that the campaign was taking place on unceded Musqueam territory. This silence is indicative of, and complicit with, a settler colonial project that is premised upon ongoing displacement of Indigenous peoples, here the Musqueam people. This fact is completely erased by a campaign that prizes itself to support the displaced. To me, the campaign is indicative of self-indulgent white saviourism and white privilege, and promotes the misconception that capitalism can actually be an activist force.

A little history about how this project is first and foremost linked to the business community is in order. This charity was first conceived at the University of Alberta’s School of Business in 2005 and spread to other universities including UBC. The students participating in the campaign were to “give up creature comforts and basic necessities for five days to raise money and awareness for…a local charity.” The campaign received further support from local businesses and banks. At UBC, it purports to raise awareness about homelessness and provide funds for the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. It further invites corporate sponsors “to show…[their] support for the local community by promoting…[their] company to the general public.” Yes, you heard it right: this is benevolent capitalism at its finest.

The pseudo-altruism and irony of this charitable enterprise is worth noting here: the homeless and their plight become commodities that help the sponsors self-promote their so-called ‘service’ to the community and become visible to the general public. Homelessness is not the problem – but rather capitalism is – and the irony of corporate sponsorship indicates that indeed, capitalism will stop at nothing. Not only does this campaign obscure the fact that capitalism is the root cause of social inequality, but it enables corporations to commodify the homeless as a cultural capital to reap more profit. And how cool is that? Next time that we hear that 98 CORPORATE GROUP RESOURCES LTD, or DESJARDINS, or CACHE CREEK NATURAL BEEF Co have sponsored Five Days For the Homeless at UBC, we will know that capitalism cares. And isn’t that great: we can then proceed to consume more stuff because, you know, these people “give back” to the community. But let me be clear: activist capitalism is just as ludicrous an oxymoron as green capitalism is a contradiction in terms. As Slavoj Zizek might say, this is how capitalism gives with one hand while destroying with the other.

While the intentions of the students are heartfelt, Five Days for the Homeless – particularly in the way it is tied to the business world – is nothing but a “band aid” campaign. It bears similarities to the ways Bill Gates, George Soros and other corporate moguls “help” the so-called Third-World, or how privileged celebrities such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and Bono “help” Africa. As critics such as Dambisa Mayo, Claudette Carr, and Teju Cole remind us, this type of charity is “in dire need…[of] shift[ing] from patronising the ‘poor’, to deprogramming the truly impoverished” (Carr). This points to the necessity of sustainable solutions such as creating more accessible social housing and jobs, and finding ways to halt gentrification. It also entails that the spokespeople for help/charity/support should be the homeless and displaced themselves, not privileged students who temporarily suspend their comforts. I’d like to quote Carr’s words in referring to the “wise Nigerian elder, Chinua Achebe, who reminds us that, ‘While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary’” (Carr, emphasis in the original). In other words, the real solution does not lie on “band aid” projects, but on the eradication of the root problem of homelessness: capitalism, colonialism, and racism, to name a few.

Furthermore the campaign erases the everyday struggles and traumatic experiences – such as mental illness, addiction and abuse – that the homeless face and survive on a daily basis. For most of these people living in the streets is the only “choice” that they have – and as such, it is not really a choice. By pretending to embody the experiences of houseless folks and those bodies/minds of the displaced, the students disempower and victimize the homeless. Moreover, they usurp the voice of folks living in the streets. In other words, not only do these students speak for the homeless, but they do so without enabling dialogue with those they advocate for. By extension, the displaced become the pitied other, the utterly silent victim of the students’ campaign.

Thus, the student participants in this charity project become the ventriloquists of the homeless; they become saviors, the “altruistic” persons who make the sacrifices. But by day 5 they are able to pack up the props of the homeless soap opera, go back home, and hop into a warm shower with their consciences pacified: they’ve done their bit; they’ve raised money; they’ve “helped” the homeless. But in truth, their campaign has violently silenced and victimized the homeless, used them as props to assuage their guilt of privilege, removed the social context of the reasons for their homelessness, and robbed them of any dignity. In this social melodrama, there are no resilient or resisting folks, but only eternal, pitiful homeless “victims”.

Let me be clear: I do not have a problem with the students’ genuinely caring intentions; what I am opposed to is the ineffectiveness of the campaign’s tactics. I take issue with how the five days “ordeal” gives the wrong message rather than raising awareness: ultimately, it trivializes homelessness. Let’s face it: pretending that we are homeless for five days while knowing that we can return back to comforts of our homes and privileged lives does not make us homeless and never will.

The term ‘homeless’ has essentialist implications based on class, race, and ability. It is a derogatory generalization that homogenizes all experiences of homelessness and all houseless people. It casts doubt on the work ethic of many houseless folks while absolving the capitalist system of its role in unemployment or in lack of housing. In other words, it decontextualizes the problem of homelessness and puts the onus on countless of people without shelter whose lives have been determined and destroyed by the social policies of the capitalist state. For example, many people with mental health issues are forced into homelessness because they are denied access to housing.

The problem has become so pervasive that now there is a trend to evict people living in the streets from the streets themselves. An episode on CBC’s The Current called By Design explores how cities are designed for the privileged few and how streets have become hostile for the homeless by relying on “defensive, anti-homeless architecture” that keeps people living in the streets out of public spaces. Some of these architectural “miracles” of rampant capitalism are managed by privately owned companies called POPS. “Defensive architecture” ranges from putting gates into parks where homeless often try to find respite, designing benches that are uncomfortable to sleep in, installing spikes in front of buildings to prevent homeless from sleeping in front of them and so on. I doubt that a real displaced person, who happened to seek shelter in front of the library, would have had the same welcoming fate by UBC and its security as did the campaigners of Five Days for the Homeless.

Many of the homeless in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside (DTES) are Indigenous people and more specifically Indigenous women; this is not coincidental at all, for Canada’s genocidal policies continue to dispossess Indigenous communities from their land through coerced relocation, removal and the institution of residential schools and the reserve system. As Indigenous feminists Andrea Smith and Leanne Simpson argue, racialized sexual violence against Indigenous women is a common means of consolidating Canada’s colonial project. Colonialism’s violent attempts “to disappear the Indian” in Smith’s words, forcibly displaces Indigenous peoples and converts them into perpetual homeless victims par excellence. Today, this very process has morphed into Indigenous homelessness in Vancouver DTES and other sites of displacement across Canada, as well as prisons filled to the brim with Indigenous people. Meanwhile, euphemisms for the colonial settler obscure the reality of violence that we (settlers) perpetuate. 1,200 missing and murdered Indigenous women is a fact that attests to the colonial acts of displacing and disappearing them and refusing to do anything about it. As Melissa Herman, a resilient ex-homeless Indigenous woman, reminds us: they are constantly “being written off [read: being erased] as high-risk aboriginal women.” The Five Days For the Homeless campaign surreptitiously isolates homelessness from this context, makes it seem like an individual choice, places it in a social vacuum, and transforms it into an adventure that a few students with homes undertake for a few guilt-free days.

However, there are countless stories of resilient displaced folks who can never be defined as powerless victims. Consider, for example, the story of “The Artist Formerly Known As Homeless Dave,” who in March 2013 “began a hunger strike in support of housing rights and social justice in the Downtown Eastside. The strike was announced in front of the controversial Sequel 138 development site at Main and Hastings, where a developer is planning to build unaffordable market condos using a financial subsidy from the BC Liberal government.” His demands were “that the city decline the development permit for Sequel 138; that the former Main Street police station be used for social housing; and that the Downtown Eastside be declared a ‘social justice zone.” “We’re not about smashing windows,” he stated, “we’re about smashing the old broken paradigms and building new paradigms that are more just and equal.” Dave’s strike gained the support of First Nations leaders while other residents of the DTES have been active in successful Social Housing Coalitions.

Forgive me, then, if I say that I’m not interested in this campaign at all. In fact, I find it offensive, abhorrent, narcissistic and disempowering to those it purports to help. Homelessness. Is. Not. A. Choice. In contrast, it is inextricably linked to the inequalities produced by white privilege, capitalism and settler colonialism of which the campaign is a part of. Homelessness can only be eradicated when capitalism and settler colonialism cease to exist altogether.

Postscript: On March 12 2015 just after my class I dropped by the I.K Barber library and chatted with some of the participants in this campaign. I pointed out to them some of the above concerns although admittedly our conversation was very brief. They invited me to give them feedback on their campaign. Here is my feedback and a list of suggestions. I also invite my readers to please feel free to add to this tentative list any other suggestions that address the above ethical concerns about their project.

  1. Stop NOW this misguided campaign in its current format: the soap opera of privileged kids pretending to be homeless for five days gives the wrong message to students and the UBC community; it trafficks on the misery of others, trivializes and commodifies homelessness.
  2. Find other ethical and rather humble ways to raise awareness that do not appropriate the voice and experiences of people living in the streets.
  3. Reflect on your own race, ability, and class privilege, on your location and social context. Reflect genuinely and sincerely on the land you occupy and on your status as a settler.
  4. Opt for forms of helping by becoming “unsung heroes,” or by refusing entirely the role of the self-sacrificing hero and the white saviour. Work from the margins: most of all never put on a show that highlights YOU and how much YOU care by acting out and appropriating the experiences of extremely vulnerable people.
  5. Refuse to include corporations and big businesses in your campaign particularly when they do this to self-promote. Misery is not a commodity. Misery is not for sale.
  6. In your campaign find ways to contextualize homelessness as an issue of systemic inequality (of capitalism, settler colonialism, ableism, misogyny, and racism).
  7. However you choose to raise awareness and funds, always remember to take great care to not victimize marginalized communities. Find resilient voices that resist the social circumstances they were forced to inhabit; be deeply aware of how your campaign may intentionally or unintentionally disempower and remove agency from those it aims at empowering.
  8. No person of privilege should speak on behalf of the homeless. No superficial or tokenizing advocacy for the homeless can be a solution to the problem of homelessness. As the story of “The Artist Formerly Known as Homeless Dave” implies, the spokespeople for the homeless can only be those that have experienced and understand homelessness. They can only advocate for those living in the streets in a meaningful manner that demands real and radical solutions.
  9.  “Help the homeless” by opting not for “Band Aid” campaigns but for projects that fight for radical social change and undermine the very systems that create disposable and displaced people.

Litsa Chatzivasileiou has a PhD in Hispanic Studies with a specialization in feminist philosophy and cultural theory, in particular post-structuralism and post-colonial studies. She has worked as an assistant professor at the Hispanic Studies at the University of British Columbia. She is currently a sessional instructor at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice and teaches critical race, Indigenous, diaspora and gender studies.

Dedicated to my wonderful students in GRSJ 328/2015: Kim, Erin, Sarah V. W., Susan, Haneen, Ciara, Sierra, Emma, Samir, Kay, Kelly, Cecilia, Tania, Donna, Jillian, Laura, Teresa, Natasha, Allison, Alyssa, Sarah J., Alison, Krista, Zoe A., Becca, Zoe D., Jason, Suzi, Sherry, Anita, Amanda, Ghada, Giselle, Sarah B., Shoukia, Marlee, Anna, Celeste. You are my inspiration.

Many thanks to the editors of The Talon for their thoughtful comments and suggestions on this piece.

  • Emma

    I think another problem with the campaign is the way that people consume it, so to speak. To me, it feels a lot like those videos were someone that many people (the majority + those with privilege) find easier to empathize with is put in a position of oppression (For example, ‘imagine a world where everyone’s gay except this one oppressed straight girl!). Why do you only care when there’s a student/peer/classmate sitting there? Why wouldn’t you care if someone who didn’t want to or couldn’t go to university, or if they weren’t like you?

    Furthermore, as well as racism, colonialism, ableism, and capitalism, I think it’s important to note that many younger homeless people (and maybe older too?) are LGBTQ+ (especially T) and have been kicked out of their house/left their house and feel constantly unsafe. some stats – http://nationalhomeless.org/issues/lgbt/

    • Litsa

      Great points, Emma. Thank you for sharing. You really nailed the idea that many people find it easier to sympathize with these students that look to be privileged folks when raising awareness about homeless people. It is exactly the same thing when people find it easier to listen to celebrities when they raise awareness about AIDS, Ebola, poverty or what have you. This, for me, needs to change as well because part of the problem is that those with privilege become the spokespeople for those who lack it. It is a way of appropriating not only the voice of the homeless but also their experiences.

      I could not agree with you more that many displaced folks in DTES are LGBTQ youth and particularly *trans women displaced doubly: from home and in the streets.

  • LLV93

    I don’t necessarily agree with your thoughts on capitalism (I personally think it is conductive to healthy competition that brings progress, but I think it should be moderated with a cap on wealth based on equitable taxes and a heavy, heavy emphasis on welfare state policies), but I found this quote to hit the nail on the head:
    “I doubt that a real displaced person, who happened to seek shelter in front of the library, would have had the same welcoming fate by UBC and its security as did the campaigners of Five Days for the Homeless.”
    You just summed up what made me feel uneasy about this whole thing for the past few years, I could just never seem to put it into words.
    PS. Agreed on Bono but as far as I know Madonna actually does amazing things in Malawi, she has built dozens of schools and a hospital in a country that desperately needs the infrastructure, employing locals and empowering the communities there. It’s hardly volontourism. But I totally get your point on the celebrity white saviour complex in Africa which happens all too often.

  • Ivan Leonce

    Powerful article and critique of the campaign – Thank you so much for sharing!

    Feelings about the assumptions being made about the folks who have participated in this campaign, their histories, experience of race, wealth status, living conditions, relationship to the land, experience/past experience of homelessness/street involvement.

    Sure many of the folks involved may be like those described in the article. I think the generalization and erasure implicit in the article could be reframed/re-conisdered though.

  • Bryan

    I think that one of the most important points being made here is the comparison of unequal treatments by the University between the camping students and homeless people: one population is welcomed and celebrated; the other is discriminated and marginalized. How can such a dichotomy exist at a supposedly progressive place?

    I liken this practice, and the idea of “defensive architecture”, to a simple analogy: a patient goes into a hospital to seek treatment for a consistently bleeding wound, but instead of receiving sutures, the doctors instead removes all of the patient’s blood. While this fixes the problem, it also kills the patient and refuses to address the issue at hand: the bleeding wound.

    Homelessness is a deeply rooted, systemic issue with complexity causal factors. Treating a symptom of the accumulation of these factors—homelessness—by building “defensive architecture” into a city’s landscape not only refuses to address the issue, it progresses the problem. The University is being hypocritical by accepting these students’ symbolic gesture of solidarity while also persecuting those actually affected by the issue.

    There are far better and more significant gestures that can be made by both the University and these students in order to better address issues of homelessness. Supporting those actually experiencing homelessness, instead of only those looking to empathize, would be a good place to start.