“The social impact of poverty, in itself a determinant of poor physical and mental health, is publicly on show in our larger cities. However, rather than question our economic and social system, will we follow the neoliberal line and blame the individual?” – Garrick Martin, Mental Health Worker
“Hey man, got any change?” We don’t talk enough about the connections between poverty, mental health, and homelessness. Garrick Martin, who has worked in mental health and homeless services for a number of years, encourages the public and the government not to be seduced by a “punitive approach” to homelessness.
An example from the U.S is the banning of begging, to which Martin responds, “I have yet to see research that suggests this approach A) is socially just, or B) effective.”
Martin notes that a similar tendency is evident in some public discourse in New Zealand around ‘undesirable people’ gathering in parks or public areas: “The amendments currently being discussed to Auckland Council bylaws raise the spectre of ‘public nuisance.’ This ‘nuisance’ often involves socially marginalised people, who either sleep rough or live in insecure and substandard accommodation, and who may have very little ‘private space’ and therefore socialise in public.”
Sometimes it seems easier to avoid the issue of homelessness. We might cross the street or look the other way. It is hard to be confronted with evidence that the systems we have created are not working equitably. But dignity and self-determination are necessary for everyone. If the systems we have are not working effectively, can we change them rather than punish people who fall through the cracks?
Intergenerational trauma has a huge impact on our health and wellbeing. Not surprisingly, groups that have experienced extensive intergenerational trauma are over-represented in homelessness and ill health. For example, Martin asserts, “the effects of raupatu, loss of cultural capital, and institutional racism are all linked to the disproportionately high levels of urban homelessness experienced by Māori.”
But all is not lost! Martin observes that there are “some fantastic initiatives going on right now, especially improved inter-agency working.” Improving our health, welfare, education and justice systems will benefit everyone.
So the next time someone asks you for change, are you gonna look the other way, give them a coin, or think about how to make the kind of change that is really necessary?