Advocating for Destigmatization

Homelessness is a crisis that a person experiences; it does not define the person

Stigma refers to negative attitudes, beliefs, actions and biases against someone based around some kind of identifiable feature, trait, status or group. Stigmatization is a form of discrimination, and under the Ontario Human Rights Code, every person has the right to equal treatment. The Code outlines protected grounds:

  • Age
  • Ancestry, colour, race
  • Citizenship
  • Ethnic origin
  • Place of origin
  • Creed
  • Disability
  • Family status
  • Marital status (including single status)
  • Gender identity, gender expression
  • Receipt of public assistance (in housing only)
  • Record of offences (in employment only)
  • Sex (including pregnancy and breastfeeding)

Stigma can create life-threatening situations. It prevents people from getting help, creates barriers to accessing services, and pushes people to avoid seeking help.

Despite being enshrined in law, stigmatization still persists: it can be overt by an individual or group or take the form of systemic stigmatization within our institutions. It happens all around us, whether we see it or not. Our actions, thoughts and language can incidentally stigmatize, even without intent.

Reducing stigma usually begins with the language we use.

In our line of work, we advocate for the use of people-first language, meaning an individual’s name or identity first. An example is homeless person VS. a person experiencing homelessness. The former erroneously prioritizes an individuals’ status as homeless, when in reality homelessness is a crisis that a person experiences; it does not define the person. The latter respects an individual’s dignity and identity by placing their personhood first.

A similar method can be used for other groups within our purview. For example, we do not say addict, rather a person with a substance use disorder (SUD), or a person living with addiction. These serve as dignifying alternatives to harsh, stigmatizing language such as addict, junkie. Or, if someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, we reinforce the person’s identity first, followed by their crisis (an individual experiencing a mental health crisis), and we avoid stigmatizing language such as crazy, insane.

People-first language is a simple formula that everyone can follow. Since stigmatizing language has, for many, become a habit, it might take time for you to avoid problematic language. Nobody is perfect. Try your best and treat people how they want to be treated – like an individual.

A housing crisis renders an individual vulnerable, which makes it increasingly difficult for them to navigate their community or seek justice when subjected to discrimination.

Individuals experiencing homelessness can be exposed to many different types of unique stigma. Some of this is explicit, such as state-sanctioned actions like the forceful destruction of encampments, anti-homeless architecture (such as a ledge with concrete spikes on it) and gentrification (displacement of marginalized individuals due to a neighbourhood’s increasing affluence).

Other types of discrimination might be implicit and include incorrect assumptions by people, such as the view that people are homeless by choice or that they lack initiative. This can create further barriers when an individual is ready to transition into housing. In fact, many of the Ontario Human Rights Code’s protected grounds can act as barriers to housing. According to Homeless Hub, research on housing discrimination demonstrates prejudice on the part of landlords and real estate agents in declining potential tenants based on a host of characteristics, and that despite the presence of anti-discrimination laws in Canada, discriminatory practices are increasingly implicit, rather than explicit.”

Further, when you combine homelessness with other protected grounds, it can create layered stigma. For example, if someone experiencing homelessness also identifies as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), they might be subjected to the above discrimination plus racism. Or, if someone is part of the LGBTQ2+ spectrum, they might also experience gender-based discrimination.

Overall, stigma surrounding homelessness surrounds the myth that homelessness and poverty are due to a personal failure, when in reality it is a symptom of inhumane public policy.

Get out and participate in your community! Volunteer, network, spread good, be self-reflective and always be seeking to learn. A number of community organizations offer workshops and other seminars relating to inclusion, such as Pillar Nonprofit Network. You too, can initiate self-guided learning and advocacy by interacting with people and groups who share a vision for a more equitable London.

Social media is another strong tool to advocate for de-stigmatization. Reading, interacting with and sharing content from organizations who focus on de-stigmatization is a great way to circulate relevant content and your perspectives with your social circles.

Perhaps the easiest way to be an advocate is to treat people how you want others to treat you, namely with respect, dignity and compassion.

If you experience discrimination (including stigmatization), you can file a claim with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. For more information, please visit the OHRC’s official website. Regardless of your identity or situation, you have a right to be treated fairly and equally.

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