Written by Zach Harcourt
“Isiah, how do I look?” I ask nervously.
“Come again?” he responds, visibly confused.
“You know,” I begin. “Can you tell—can you tell that I’m homeless?”
“Zach,” he says flatly, “you look like every other student on campus.”
Oh, thank God, I say to myself. Filled with relief at my apparent ability to blend in, and feeling somewhat silly for assuming that a mere glance on the part of indifferent students could possibly reveal my circumstances.
When I found myself at the doorstep of Covenant House a little over a year ago, escorted by Lisa, my gifted addictions counsellor, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Following an initial intake meeting with an annoyingly cheerful staff member, I was led through a door, down a connecting corridor, and into the shelter’s great hall. As I stoically scanned the room, I have to admit that I was quite surprised. As it turns out, homelessness did not equate to a diminished sense of style—in fact it seemed that the opposite rang true.
What I quickly discovered was that, like myself, many of the shelter’s residents were plagued by a pressing need to ‘blend in’—to appear ‘normal,’ so to speak. And normal, did they appear. Quite truthfully, it would not have surprised me if some of them had claimed to be former models for brands such as Topman or American Apparel—models fallen from grace, of course.
The inconvenient truth here is that, while stylish and current, the young residents at Covenant House, myself included, are forced to prioritize our appearances in a way that others are not. While our motives may vary, one thing is certain: having lost most everything substantial in our young adults lives, we feel small and invisible—yet unjustly scrutinized all the same. Who could blame us for feeling this way? The paradox here is that, while overwhelmed by a sense of socially invisibility, we’re also plagued by feelings of painful exposure.
What was glaring to me in my lived experience as a homeless youth, was both the social stigma surrounding homelessness, and the internalized stigma which occurred as a result; but what I found most pernicious was the seeming indifference and ignorance of the general public. Walking through the downtown core, I found myself feeling exceedingly frustrated and bitter, not only with myself, but with the world at large. F*ck your NorthFace jacket—and f*ck you too.
Such thoughts had become the norm and there weren’t many people who were exempt from my indignant criticisms. Take my psychiatrist for example: a white gay male; an Oxford graduate; and a family man, if you will. Though there’s still some truth that Dr. Jones is still the unquestionable antithesis to both my current circumstances and lived experience as a whole, I had no insight—apart from the certificates and plaques on his office wall—as to what his life history actually looked like. In my mind, he had been reduced to his perceived elitism and privilege.
Though we’ve come a long way since my initial hospital admission a little under two years ago, I sometimes find myself experiencing rather brief, albeit intense feelings of frustration and envy towards him—or rather towards his privilege, both real or otherwise perceived. He’s truly a wonderful man, with struggles of his own I’m sure.
The truth is, having spent eight months in a homeless shelter, both as a student and as an employee, I often struggle to come to terms with the reality that in our society there are far too many individuals who—by a stroke of bad luck, systemic issues, and poor choices—work harder than most to survive in this world. I’ve elected to use the word survive here, as opposed to live. One could argue that both words are synonymous with one another, but I would have to disagree. To ‘survive’ is to continue to exist in this world in spite of the many hardships one faces in the process. The word ‘live’ on the other hand, implies that one must simply remain alive, and though this is arguably challenging in and of itself, it does not carry the same meaning, nor the same weight—at least not in my eyes.
One of the many damaging residual effects I’ve experienced as a result of being homeless is the deep resentment I’ve developed towards those with even a semblance of privilege—a constant ticking in my head. The psychic disconnection and societal distance that developed over time, lingers to this day. If we’ve ever met and I struck you as withdrawn or distant, well now you know why. I hope I’m forgiven for feeling both demoralized and bitter at the realization that, while most people tend to struggle in pursuit of a more meaningful and fulfilling life, some of us spend a great deal of our lives merely trying to survive.
What I discovered long ago, was that so long as inequality exists in our society, I (like so many others) will unwillingly continue to bear a heavy cross. Though I’m no longer a resident at Covenant House, there’s not a day that passes by in which I do not conjure up the faces of current, former, and future residents in my mind. When I walk past the wooden doors of the shelter and glance discreetly at the many youth huddled around the entrance, I’m overcome with guilt and sorrow—and don’t even get me started on the hellish dreams I’ve had involving the shelter and its neglected youth.
Following a recent presentation of mine on Youth Homelessness, an audience member boldly stated that youth homelessness is an issue which rightly deserves the attention of all community members. He went on to say that this is an issue that should be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Though his statement was both powerful and deeply appreciated, I continue to worry that youth homelessness and homelessness in general are issues that will likely persist.
Too often homelessness is viewed not as a failure on society’s part, but rather a personal failure on the part of afflicted individuals. As such, I would argue that many members of our society are afforded a sense of immunity and absolution in the face of such issues. If it’s not their problem, then why become a part of the solution—why take action at all? In a safe bubble, far removed from the realities of society’s most marginalized, collective responsibility seems to fade into the background.
With that, I say this: like most societal issues, we’re all implicit in one way or another. Which is why I believe that progression and social change require commitment and participation from all members of society. An effective solution is one which values honesty, awareness, collaboration, and equity on both an individual and societal level—and not the continued stigmatization of those on the fringes of society.
Resist Stigma is a national initiative developed by the CBRC: our goal is to reduce stigma by empowering young GBQ2ST guys to reveal its impact on health, everyday life, and how they resist it. For more information, and to read other contributors' blogs, go to resiststigma.com.