Saturday, April 19, 2008

No one has the right to break the law

I wrote the following to clear my thoughts on something that is happening in our city right now. There's a lot of dialogue about laws that result in homeless individuals being targetted because the laws cite behaviours such as urinating in public, feet up on park benches, spitting on streets, etc. as unacceptable. The dialogue has mostly focused on the 'wrongness' of fining someone who can't pay the ticket in the first place and often doesn't turn up for their court date resulting in greater fines and ultimately, criminal records.

My 21 year-old daughter and I were driving through the downtown when suddenly she exclaimed, "Yuck. That's gross."

I turned quickly to look at what she had seen that was so disgusting and saw a man, his bare rear-end facing the street, defecating on the stairs leading up to the back doors of City Hall.

"Yes, it is." I replied, noting that the man looked visibly homeless.

"That's not an excuse," my daughter replied.

She's right. It's not.

Homelessness is a debilitating social condition that zaps the individual experiencing it of energy, will, passion, hope and a host of other emotional and psychological necessities we need to live productive lives. Homelessness can be the result of, or result in, addictions, mental health crises and a host of other negative situations. Homelessness kills.

No matter the exigencies of homelessness, however, it is not an excuse for breaking the law. It is not an excuse for social anarchy. It is not an excuse to defecate in public.

In every society there are rules and laws that govern our daily conduct. When we give permission to those who have lost their way on the road of life to break the law, we give them permission to lose sight of their right to reclaim their rightful place in society.

When you're homeless, it's easy to believe you don't make a difference. When we excuse bad behaviour as part of the homeless condition, we are reinforcing the fact that homelessness is all someone deserves. We are saying, 'You're just one of them homeless. You have no value. You're hopeless.'

Truth is, there's always hope as long as someone is alive. When you're homeless, everything can be changed if you find the resources, the tools and the courage to face your demons so that you can make changes and start fresh.

It's not easy. Change seldom is. But it can be done.

I know. I was once homeless. In that period of approximately nine months where I was of 'no fixed address' but able to hide my homelessness through couch surfing and other debilitating maneuvers, I struggled to understand what had happened to my life. In my struggle, I hurt a lot of people whom I love. I hurt my daughters, my family and friends. And, I hurt myself by excusing my bad behaviour. To make sense of the nonsense in my life, I made excuses for myself and gave into an abuser who told me he had all the answers; he could fix my life.

In that choice to let go of my responsibility for my own life, I let go of my own accountability. I became someone I had never dreamed I could possibly be; a woman who would desert her children because a man told her it was the right thing to do.

Letting go of myself, breaking all the rules that governed my life and letting go of my daughters was never the right thing to do. In trying to make it right, I stepped into a world without rules, without boundaries, a foreign territory where I became so lost I wanted to die.

I was lucky. One spring morning two police officers walked in and arrested the man who had promised to love me, 'til death do us part, but was taking the death part way too seriously. At the time of my release from that relationship, my daughters and I were separated by a gulf of anger and a sense of loss that none of us could understand.

To help us heal I had to become accountable for what I had done. I had to accept my past behaviour was unacceptable and commit to positive change. I had to ask for my daughters' forgiveness, and I had to forgive myself. In healing, I had to face the truth; in letting go of my values and principles, in giving into someone else's assertions that they had the right to control my life, I fell into the lie, 'this is all I'm worth'.

It is not okay that someone is homeless in our city of wealth. It is not okay if someone is specifically targeted because of their social status, race, gender, sexual orientation, or belief. It is also not okay that someone defecate on the steps of City Hall. Nor is it okay when we look away and say, we shouldn't hold him accountable because he is homeless.

Homelessness is not an excuse. It is a circumstance of life. With help and care, through programs and services provided by the agencies working with this population, individuals experiencing homelessness can take steps in the right direction to change their lives. They can't do that if we excuse them from turning up because they've fallen down.

To create change, we must all be accountable for our behaviour. In accepting bad behaviour as acceptable, we are participating in the continuation of the very homelessness we say we want to end. We are tacitly buying into the myth that homeless individuals are not accountable for their actions. When we hold some people accountable and a select few unaccountable because of their lack of fortune or other life mischance, we set-up a two-tiered system where circumstances determine who has to abide by the laws that govern us, and who is allowed to break them.

We are responsible for the contributions we make, to our own lives, to our families and to our communities. Giving someone permission to continue to escape into the despair of the homelessness that has brought them down without encouraging them to become accountable for their behaviour, keeps them stuck on the street, abdicating responsibility for their birthright to be productive members of society. In turn, it keeps us from actively participating in the creation of the kind of society we deserve to live in; a kinder, more generous and giving world where everyone has value and is inspired to live up to their values. A place where everyone makes a difference and is valued for the difference they make.

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