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Being, becoming, belonging: Few change their indoctrinated views of homeless people

Carlos Mesquita mentions how on several occasions, he has witnessed other re-homed and homeless people being treated in ways that render them significant. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Carlos Mesquita mentions how on several occasions, he has witnessed other re-homed and homeless people being treated in ways that render them significant. Picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Aug 11, 2021


This past week was one of those weeks in which I went from exhilarated to despondent in a short time. I almost convinced myself that my drug use had finally come to claim its selfish last instalment.

(It’s becoming my experience that most people, even the “progressive” ones in the homeless sector, believe that once you have been homeless and done drugs, you will never be their equal.)

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Things are happening in homelessness, but not many within the sector have changed their indoctrinated or self-serving perceptions about homeless people. It’s more adapting than changing, and that is just not good enough.

I am constantly being humbled by people whom I know are sincerely interested in real and sustainable change for the homeless, but even they are often not prepared to face the fact that they too are still prejudiced, which will prevent huge successes in a short space of time.

Our House has a tagline that I doubt many have even taken note of: being becoming belonging.

The first two are up to the individual who leaves street life to achieve, but the third and most important is up to the society into which he or she is now moving. Only they can offer that sense of belonging, which, after a roof over your head and nutrition, is the one thing all humans aspire to: some form of recognition and validation.

People who are serious about revolutionising this sector and having the desired effects we all share for those we serve, the homeless, will have to let go of the old perceptions and responses.

The most important one is that we are dealing with and should be responding to INDIVIDUALS and not people living on the streets, and all the myths and misconceptions that this brings with it.

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This is a huge challenge.

Even those whom I consider closest to me and the vision I am trying to share say they get it, but most don’t. (Yet I live in hope.)

Service providers within the sector cannot expect civil society to see the bigger picture that they see but don’t themselves understand. The impact of this on those being re-homed is devastating.

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On several occasions, I have had to not only experience but also witness other re-homed and homeless people being treated in ways that render them significant enough to warrant a conversation with or ask their opinion about or have a discussion with, but not significant enough to allow them their agency and let them not only engage but also supply that space for them to take their ideas to fruition.

Here are some examples: I have been inundated with questions about Our House and what would it take to recreate it and its success elsewhere, and so I tell them what it took and that I have such confident in the model that I will demonstrate it to them if they give me a group to work with, and lo and behold, there their level of interest in me changes to my giving them the information and them then giving over the project with notes to someone “trustworthy and reliable”, or, in other words, wasn’t “homeless and on drugs”, who then, without an understanding of the nuances that make the model work, changes what seems foreign to them.

Guess what? It is no longer the model I suggested, and I won’t be blamed when it doesn’t work out as I predicted! Why ask in the first place if you are so convinced about your ideas?

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I became involved in starting a new body that is meant to become the organisation that will represent the voice of the homeless, and although we survived the onslaught of those who wanted to stay firmly entrenched in the past, I am constantly filled with fear, not because I am an arrogant man and want everyone to know it was my idea and want it all for myself, but because everything in my initial proposal is there for a reason.

If you start chopping and changing the essence, I can no longer vouch for its effectiveness.

One of the big myths of homelessness is that “most homeless people are addicts and criminals” and thus inferior in some way to those who have never been exposed to homelessness.

Irrespective of a person’s past life (most people have one before becoming homeless and even during homelessness), most people I know persist in either consciously or even more dangerously, subconsciously, saying and doing things that display their prejudice.

Next week: the significant role civil society plays in changing the status quo.

* 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.

Cape Argus

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