Homeless Transformation Key – Stop Social Stigma
By Deep Ng, registered social worker, ImpactHK Programme Manager (Casework)
Hong Kong people’s impression of the homeless generally entails some negative words such as self-inflicted, filthy, lazy, unpredictable and dangerous. However, everyone wants to look good. Have a stable job. Have family and friends you hold dear. Have dreams and hopes. But how many people have actually thought about this? So why do homeless people fall into homelessness? Why does the number of homeless people keep rising every year in this prosperous city?
Answering the above questions is no easy task. The reasons for being homeless are quite complex. In addition to personal problems caused by oppression facing the homeless, other structural factors such as sociocultural and political cannot be ignored. The characteristics of the homeless are extremely diverse and the age range is wide. According to the Hong Kong Homelessness Census 2021 conducted by various non-governmental organizations and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 40% (39%) of the homeless have chronic diseases, and 15% (15.5%) of them are physically disabled. In terms of mental health, about 30% (28.7%) had symptoms of depression, 20% (26.3%) had symptoms of anxiety, and some had various addiction problems. Meanwhile, there are: people with hoarding disorder forced to leave their original residences; people affected by family factors, such as parents sacrificing themselves to live on the streets to leave more space for their children to build a family. On the contrary, some children sacrifice their parents, forcing them to live on the streets; and also people with mental disability who cannot follow normal life routines. Apart from these, special situations of young people, temporary unemployment due to COVID-19, social oppression faced by communities including rehabilitated people and refugees are basic causes of “homelessness”. Most of them are a group of people who are forgotten, marginalized and not taken care of under the existing social welfare protection network. They also lose their basic housing rights due to different chain effects.
Difficult to Get Rid of Social Labelling and Lead a New Life
In addition to providing basic protection (accommodation and hot meals) for the homeless, ImpactHK also helps re-establish a healthy life routine through initiatives including sports and fitness and art activities, counselling and healthcare programs. It also helps empower them through community helper training services and full-time job opportunities. However, even if relevant organizations are fully involved, they often yield half the results with twice the efforts. The reason is that bodies and minds of the homeless have been wiped out for a long time by the difficulties in homelessness, and they have lived under the cold eyes of the public for a long time. Their every move is monitored. They are deserted and pressured by government departments for different reasons, and suffer from long-term social stigma. If the sense of disability and powerlessness keeps deteriorating, the mental health of an individual will become unsatisfactory along with rolelessness. Coupled with the lack of family support, they are haunted by an array of negative experiences in the face of social exclusion. Even if homeless people receive love and support, it’s hard for them to lead a brand new life if labelling continues to exist in the community. Such life remains an elusive goal, a distant dream.
The Key to Getting Homeless Back on Their Feet is to Stop Social Stigmatization
Getting homeless back on their feet starts with rejecting stigmas associated with homelessness. Social stigma refers to the prejudice and discrimination against vulnerable groups that separate the general public from the disadvantaged and create feelings of shame associated with negative stereotypes. More importantly, who created stigma against homelessness? Policy, social culture, and education all have a role to play. First, instead of putting in place a homeless-friendly policy supporting street sleepers, the Hong Kong government is adopting a policy of expulsion, such as cleaning the street on a regular basis, spilling odorous powder, removing the top of pavilions, and laying a thick layer of pebbles under flyovers in a bid to drive out those living on the streets. The Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) used to evict street sleepers on cold mornings, confiscate and dump their personal belongings, while the police are also suspected of destroying properties of homeless or even attacking street sleepers. All of these reflect the social status of homeless people. Many of them have worked hard to contribute to society but are forced into homelessness for various causes and difficulties encountered. When the government treats homeless people as an irritant, rather than those who need help, a vicious cycle is created in which community residents despise the homeless, complaining repeatedly to put pressure on them. They refuse to empathize with homeless people whom they perceive as dangerous and are thus afraid of them and try to avoid where they live.
Capitalism and the Idea of Causation Reinforce the Negative Attitudes towards Homeless
The social culture and education of Hong Kong emphasize the notion of personal responsibility, which encourages people to change their lives through hard work. In a capitalist society, people tend to hold the belief that the harder you work, the more you earn. Hard work and dedication eventually lead to power, wealth, social status, and the prestige of the so-called “successful people”. Due to this idea, people are more likely to believe that those experiencing homelessness are lazy and their struggles are self-inflicted. Moreover, Hong Kong people in general are heavily influenced by traditional Chinese culture, which adopts the thoughts of causation and fate. As Chinese proverbs say, “whoever is pitiful must have a cause to be despised”, “an empty hole invites the wind, there must be something behind”, and “misfortune is a deserved punishment”. These proverbs assume that a person must have his own fault to deserve misfortune, which is largely misleading. Such claims have been spreading among the public, which reinforces the negative attitudes towards the homeless.
Cultural influence and social stigma gradually manifest themselves in language and everyday interpersonal relationships, resulting in a prevalent discourse in the community, such as “90% of street sleepers are drug addicts”, “places where homeless people sleep are dangerous”, and “all street sleepers are lazy and self-inflicted.” Such unsubstantiated claims spread quickly, imposing relentless oppression on the homeless. The most serious consequence of social stigmatization occurs when homeless people agree with and internalize these negative perceptions and beliefs, which results in self-stigma. That is, they hold a self-image of being “dangerous and living a self-inflicted and irreversible life.” The impacts of self-stigma are devastating. Over time, people suffering from self-stigma are not just unwilling, but unable to take a step forward.
Reconstruct the Power Positioning of Disadvantaged Groups
To combat the oppression associated with social stigma, it’s necessary to reject oppressive language and behaviour and reconstruct the power positioning of disadvantaged groups (building self-esteem). The biggest obstacle facing the homeless is that their “history” and “stories” have been overshadowed and lost to time. They can’t find their own “voice”, “value”, and “persistence”, or resonate with others. Therefore, addressing social stigma requires us to first listen to the stories of homeless people and then share them with the whole community. With that said, it’s crucial to address the issue with a focus on “Discovering History”, “Rebuilding Capacity and Belief (Empowerment)”, “Community Education” and “Reaching Out.”
In collaboration with the Hong Kong 01, ImpactHK started to publish the real-life stories of people experiencing homelessness since May. Eight social workers of the Casework interviewed eight homeless individuals and called for anti-oppression and empowerment, encouraging the homeless to speak up about their “history”, “value”, and “belief”. At the same time, the public may see them for who they truly are and understand the problems and social barriers they face, as well as their persistence to get back on their feet. This will help people experiencing homelessness rebuild self-esteem, reduce social stigma, and encourage more people to show their care, respect, and trust to the homeless in their everyday lives.