Comment: Loss of dignity keeps some from housing solutions

The housing and services that are offered should also be joined by work to restore individual dignity.

By Claudine Sipili / For Progressive Perspectives

A recent report from Santa Clara County in California highlights a troubling trend: Despite housing more people than ever before in a single year, the rate of new people falling into homelessness spiked by 24 percent in 2023. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2023 homelessness assessment report shows a 12 percent national increase, with over 650,000 people experiencing homelessness, the highest numbers recorded since the Point-in-Time Count began in 2007.

Addressing the root causes of homelessness is urgent, but the consequences of living on the street can’t be ignored either. Invisible to many, unhoused individuals endure the trauma of being dehumanized in a society that denies their basic rights. For some, trying to preserve personhood takes precedence over well-being or even survival in the face of discrimination, judgment and disregard from fellow citizens.

The erosion of dignity that comes from losing one’s home can make it more difficult to take advantage of housing solutions. Restoring and preserving dignity alongside other interventions is essential for effectively supporting those experiencing homelessness.

When I became homeless following my military service and divorce, I felt defined not by my whole story but by unfair assumptions. Sleeping outside, I sensed passersby averting their eyes, as if my existence was too ugly to acknowledge. In overcrowded shelters devoid of privacy, I felt more alone, among so many like me robbed of identity and worth. No one tries to end up in dire circumstances. Rather than make assumptions, it is necessary to meet people where they are, with open arms, not pointed fingers.

A recent statewide study conducted by the University of California San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative revealed that a majority of respondents experiencing homelessness faced mental health challenges. The study highlighted that the stresses of homelessness, particularly feelings of shame and stigma, significantly worsened their distress.

Dignity is a core aspect of humanity, not a conditional privilege. A person’s identity, extending far beyond their lack of shelter, is shaped by their dreams, experiences and untapped potential. Recognizing this and approaching individuals with respect when discussing housing solutions is crucial in helping people overcome homelessness.

Research from 2020 reveals that the experience of dignity depends on both internal and external validation, emphasizing the importance of individuals perceiving themselves as valuable and being treated as such by others.

Strategies that can help with restoring dignity include: involving people in the process of resolving their homelessness, tailoring services to their specific needs, giving individuals choice and space to make their own decisions, using respectful language, making eye contact and treating them as we would want to be treated.

True change begins by facing hard truths. Homelessness rarely arises by choice but is an accumulation of setbacks layered upon vulnerability. Safeguarding dignity requires compassionate action to uphold the humanity in each person facing hardship, which can lead to more compassionate communities while addressing the complexities of homelessness.

Prioritizing human worth alongside practical interventions is essential. One way to do this is engagement; engaging with respect and empathy, acknowledging each person’s unique story, validating their humanity, meeting them where they are and persistently offering support.

Another way to prioritize dignity is to provide tailored access to basic necessities in a dignified manner, ensuring the person feels heard and respected.

We must also offer empowering supportive services, allowing individuals to co-lead solutions, regain control and collaborate on a plan that addresses their unique needs.

The call to action extends to each of us; to advocate for policies that offer pathways out of poverty, to support organizations that empower underserved communities and to transform public attitudes by reducing stigma against the unhoused.

With open hearts, not closed minds, we can create solutions where all people can preserve dignity. When we nurture dignity in one another, resiliency blossoms once more.

Claudine Sipili is the director of lived experience and innovation at Destination Home, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service. ©2024 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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