Image: The feelings of a child interviewed in the OCO report.
A recent report on the experiences of children living in family hubs has provoked debate on stigmatising children who are experiencing homelessness. In this blog post, Research & Policy Analyst Wayne Stanley examines the contents of this report and what we can do to address stigma.
On 18th April 2019 the Ombudsman for Children (OCO) launched ‘No Place Like Home’ a report highlighting children’s experiences of homelessness in HUBs.
The report is exceptional in the body of work on family homelessness in the way that it prioritises the voices and experiences of children. The response of some has been to criticise the report as stigmatising or having the potential to stigmatise the children.
Unquestionably, it is critical that all of us working in this area are mindful of the potential for stigmatisation. Advocates for change in this area also have to be aware of a positive bias toward those who are seeking change. We cannot be drawn into believing that because the intentions of the organization are honorable they are not capable of stigmatising and therefore neglect to critically engage.
The starting point for critical engagement is to be clear about the nature and process that we are talking about. The dictionary definition of stigma and stigmatise are: Stigma: a distinguishing mark of social disgrace. Stigmatise: to mark out or describe as something bad.
Unlike areas such as mental health where stigma is universally counterproductive the structural factors (read political and policy choices) that create homelessness, should mark it as a social disgrace for Irish society.
What we have to guard against is that stigma being transferred onto those experiencing homelessness and most particularly the children who are experiencing it.
How is stigma transferred?
One way that stigma can be transferred is through attempting to understand the structural through abstracted individual experience. In that framework elements of ‘choice’ and personal agency are emphasised. How often have we heard that some people choose to be homeless?
Another stigmatising narrative is that homelessness comes from some personal failure. How often do we hear that addiction is the cause of homelessness?
It is very difficult to make a charge that this transference was a facet of the OCO study. The word addict only appears once and it is in a quote from a young person Anne who is speaking about stigma (p59), addiction does not appear at all.
The children and more particularly the parents are grateful for the support they receive but desperate to move on from homelessness. The testimonies of the children are very personal but it is clear that they understand that their homelessness is the absence of a home, that understanding is clearly even heartbreakingly conveyed
The Children did feel Stigma
That said it remains the case that homelessness is stigmatising and the children did articulate this and had attempted to negotiate it in peer settings. “To try to cope…many children had decided not to tell their friends were the lived because they felt worried that their friends would judge them for being homeless” (p46) .
The report draws attention to this and it was notable that one of the quotes from a child most prominently highlighted in the media coverage was that HUBs were ‘like a children’s jail’ (p41).
There is a concern that this language, like some kind of perverse word association game, can contribute to increased stigmatisation. HUB’s are like Jail-Jail is for bad people-Bad people live in Hubs or by direct association that child feels ashamed to be homeless I should be ashamed.
And as perverse as it is there is no doubt some truth in it. But again we return to the report and the analysis of the children and parents who also point out repeatedly the support they receive in Hubs and that they are better than hotels and B&B’s. So there is a balance to be struck.
The OCO has attempted to strike that balance through giving agency in the report to the older children and parents in the report.
Aware of the stigma that does exist around family homelessness, no doubt conscious of instances such as the senior local authority official who accused families of ‘queue jumping’ on primetime recently or the former chair of the Housing agency who on a number of occasions stated that families were ‘gaming the system’ the children and the parents who took part in the study wished to address it.
In the appendix ‘Becoming Homeless’ the report provides a space for the articulation, by the families in their own words, of the structural reasons that led to them being forced into homelessness (p62-65).
In this way the report gives voice and agency to the families and children to address the stigma that they recognise in their own experience.
What are the other options?
What more could the report have done to address stigma? I have to admit I am struggling but I think some of those who briefed against this report may have preferred if it had never been written. That would be to silence the experience of these children and their voice and experience is too important for that. Clearly though, there is a role for all of us to amplify these voices when they call out stigmatising narratives.
For their part the OCO have produced a report that raises the voices and the experiences of children experiencing homelessness in their families. The policy analysis is excellent and the recommendations are both balanced and achievable.
The 80 children involved, a substantial sample in this kind of qualitative report, are through the OCO, making a clarion call for change. We can improve the lives of children, and maybe even reduce the stigma they feel while they are experiencing homelessness, if we listen to them.
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