Whether the particular mode of power be force, coercion, bargaining, or influence, we are all subject to social control. That is, we are all variously impacted by laws, and social expectations, with the attainment of desired outcomes typically involving compromise and conformity. It stands to reason then, that those least able to conform are subject to the greatest degree of oppression. Such is the situation for those on the streets.
Though there exists much talk within the homelessness sector about Psychologically Informed Environments, my experiences working alongside people who are homeless have included: individuals being excluded from drug services until they’re no longer under the influence, people who are deeply traumatised being accused of failing to engage with staff, and homeless alcoholics being fined for drinking in public spaces!
So, should we be employing these modes of power to bring the homeless to heel, for their own good? This might sound like a shocking turn of phrase, but not to those I work alongside. Many feel that the multitude of interventions aimed at straightening them out, dehumanise them, reducing them to “a pet project for the middle classes”, or “lab rats”, as one of my (aptly labelled) ‘participants’ put it. Similarly, many of the conditions we place upon people using homeless services infantilizes them or keeps them institutionalised (i.e. directives like: “NO GOING INTO EACH OTHER’S ROOMS” printed and on display on each of a particular hostel’s landings). I’m sure staff and service users agree that meaningful rules, consistently applied, keep us all safe. Where however, these conditions can appear arbitrary, or discriminatory, and/or there is inconsistency in their application, we risk excluding, or further traumatising people.
During my limited time as a professional attempting to navigate this terrain, I have observed services applying contrasting methods to bring about a desired behavioural change in their respective service users. One notable coercive attempt to prevent people from “sitting around all day doing nothing”, involves a stipulation that they must engage in meaningful activity or leave the day centre. Bargaining is also routinely applied across services, for example, attendance at groups is rewarded – much to the chagrin of any more determined non-conformists. Perhaps the most controversial example of this that I have witnessed, is where engagement with a certain service has meant individuals deemed intentionally homeless are supported to overcome this damning status. This condition of engagement to permit access to basic legal assistance discriminates against individuals who are unable to comply. This is yet another example of the Inverse Care Law, where those most in need of support are the least able to access it.
Change is inevitable. The great question of our time is whether the change will be by consent or coercion.
Psychologically informed, trauma informed, person centred – it’s all about relationships, and, where possible, reducing the power imbalance within these relationships. A man I’m working with explained that I’m his only male worker, because we share some common ground, and crucially, because I have no power over him. Our relationship is not based on outcomes, I have no expectations of him, he decides what support he wants and when. In essence, it’s an unconditional offer of support, regardless of his level of engagement or willingness to conform. Elastic tolerance, consistency, and accepting people as they are have proven beneficial in the process of building relationships. As these genuine human connections develop into mutual understanding and eventually trust, it is hoped that these subtle emotional and psychological shifts will demonstrate to the client that change is possible.