Monday, May 02, 2011

Getting rid of Stigma

I've mentioned that I love working at CityWalk@Akard. The diversity is amazing. To me, CityWalk is an ideal community because of it's diversity...something the large majority of communities don't have.

Ethnicities ranging from White to Black to Asian to African to Hispanic? Check.

Education levels from low adult literacy levels to college degrees? Check.

Talents from musicians to engineers to aspiring attorneys to nurses? Check.

Multiple socioeconomic levels...and multiple stages of life? Check.

Older, retired and/or disabled as well as young kids? Check.

It's a neat community to meet and connect with people. Every person I have met so far is trying to do better...no matter what their situation. They're trying to help out, earn more money, manage what they have, get involved, build their community...

Yet, the part I hear a lot of people focus on most is, "So there are homeless people?" Sometimes it is said with the best of intentions. The person saying it seems to be excited that there are homeless people that can be "helped." Other times, it is a frustration by someone who maybe has moved into the building unaware that there are "homeless" people who also live there.

First of all, let's get one thing straight...

Someone who has a home is no longer called "homeless!"


Second of all...

"Homeless" does not equal "dumb," "irresponsible," "addict," "crazy." Homeless is just that... HOME-LESS..."One without a home."
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A person who was teaching one of our classes the other day made a statement that truly bothered me. The person seems to be a truly wonderful person...and has done a great job with the class. As the class got started, the instructor explained to a new observer of the class, "These people are really smart!" and went on to say, "I don't know why they live here." More than a little offended at a comment that seemed to imply they didn't think the participants would be that smart and shouldn't have to live in a place like CityWalk if they were, I quickly responded with, "Because they want to!" Now, I know that this person did not intend any harm in that statement. In fact, this same person had even expressed the desire to move into the apartments themselves (I assume they were serious).

So how can I explain what we have at CityWalk and in many of our low-income communities?? Allow me to try...

Yes, some of the people who live at CityWalk are fighting addictions. Some are working on stabilizing their mental illness (which is fine once they can access and stay on the right kind of medication). Some are trying to overcome debt that has accumulated over the years. Some have health problems that exacerbated when they were on the street...or in an apartment that cost way more than they could afford because of their small income and, therefore, their health care took the cut instead.

I can't understand why these things are met with paternalism, condescension, or stigma. Yes, sometimes people have messed up. Other times...and for some people, that messing up has been entirely out of their control. CityWalk is and should be a place where anyone can come and be around "family" no matter what their situation.

I know rich people who have mental illnesses. The only difference is that they have a support system around them to help them take their medications on time and ensure they are as well as can be.

I know people of all ethnicities and socioeconomic levels who don't manage their money well and would be better off having taken our YWCA Financial Education class.

I know stubborn people of all sectors who refuse to see doctors when they should...and sometimes make things worse as a result. The only difference is that they have the insurance and money to pay for the care once they get to that point.

I know people in my own family who have used drugs and even got busted. They, too, had some tough life situations that led them down that path. The ultimate difference? They had a family structure with enough connections and credibility to keep them out of jail and help them feel loved and supported until they could turn their situation around.

The people at CityWalk are no different than any other place!

The only difference is that at CityWalk we are working to create a community and help build a support system for anyone who lives there. Oh wait...there is one other difference. The other difference is that at CityWalk, life is more visible. People are willing to admit that they need help...or maybe they're just not willing to cover up something that we've always tried to tuck away so that no one sees (like mental illness...like drug addiction...like financial insecurities). And it's a vertical community so it's kinda hard to enjoy a few beers on your front porch without it getting attention. People see and hear everything you do because you are in a vertical apartment complex.

My frustration with the comments and the stigma people place on CityWalk is that there are still people who live in CityWalk who aren't willing to be vulnerable yet. They are trying to overcome different situations. They may not be as secure about who they are and where they are in life. They do not want or need any more stigma on their life. They have endured enough. They deserve that space...and they deserve the dignity and respect of others who don't patronize or talk down to them...which makes it much harder to suck up that pride.

It is for them that I ask people to please stop stigmatizing!! Please stop referring to people with homes as "homeless." Please stop snidely talking about those with drug addictions and, instead, talk with them (you'll find that they have similar interests and ambitions as you do!). Please stop rolling your eyes at and being scared of people who talk to themselves and, instead, learn more about their illness...do some research...attend some workshops...and learn how you can support the numerous people in our communities who are affected by these illnesses.

In my mind, what makes an ideal community ideal is when all of God's people...with all of our perfections, flaws, talents, and idiosyncracies...are all in one place and we love each other because of and in spite of them. That is CityWalk!
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