If we want to address homelessness, we have to look at changing our preconceived ideas and open ourselves to new perceptions about those who are homeless and to addiction.
We also have to address the perception that people living on the street and those who are homed and in the clutches of addiction can freely give up their addictions.
Whether a person becomes homeless due to their addiction or whether they become addicted when they became homeless is irrelevant.
Addiction happens for one reason – the person has issues to deal with and is ill-quipped to do so.
On the streets, the most common form of addiction is substance abuse. It seems more prevalent on the streets because it is not secretive in the way it is in homed communities.
It is also easier to access, be it medication (mostly women or people with psychological disorders who start abusing their prescribed medication); alcohol, which is relatively easy to access; and narcotics which is even cheaper and more freely available than alcohol. These are also social drugs that can be bought and shared in groups, making them easier to afford.
My experience, as well as what I have seen at Our House, has made me a firm believer in housing first (unlike our model that requires rehabilitation before accommodation).
No one is comfortable living on the streets. It is a very hard and difficult life. To survive, you often find even more reasons to use drugs. Just getting through a day is proof of the human spirit and one’s will to survive, despite the odds.
By providing dignified accommodation, aligned with upskilling, empowerment and employment programmes, we will see individuals using their agency and asking for access to rehabilitation.
This is why I align myself with programmes, such as those offered by STAND and TBHIV Care, which promote harm reduction as a step towards rehabilitation.
At Our House, I have seen people so eager to maintain a roof over their heads and the opportunity of a job and a life of belonging, that they cling to it for dear life. It is then they, out of their own free, will start asking for assistance with their issues and addictions.
Giving up that which keeps you sane on the streets and enables you to do the crazy things you do (and believe me you do) just to survive from day to day will not be something people on the street will entertain. I know I wouldn't have.
It took having a roof over my head, food in my stomach and signs of a better life for me to start getting back my self-worth, and then recognition and support from those around me before I started thinking I could do without the drugs.
Being, becoming, belonging – the process we all go through from the day after being rehomed. By the time you feel you have become the person you want to be, you seek that sense of belonging that replaces your need for that substance.
The substance keeps you numb from the need to belong because no matter how much you yearn for it on the streets, it’s just not there. Your behaviour is being criminalised; you are made to feel ostracised.
If you look at Sea Point seven or six years ago, the ridiculous situation we have now wasn't there. Then, there had been a symbiotic relationship between the homeless and homed people.
Homeless people felt they "belonged" and so, had more respect for boundaries and few resorted to drugs.
Then we made and continue to make the same mistake that people make the world over, we start criminalising homelessness.
It is the worst possible thing to do. If you want to make someone feel disconnected from society, you start by persecuting and prosecuting that individual.
Pensive? So am I.
* Carlos Mesquita and a handful of others formed HAC (the Homeless Action Committee) that lobbies for the rights of the homeless. He also manages Our House in Oranjezicht, which is powered by the Community Chest. He can be reached at [email protected]
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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