When feeling drawn to take action on homelessness, many of us fall into a curative stance, that is, we want to fix others. This is done out of best intentions, the desire to alleviate suffering, but can become pejorative and actually disempowering if it is about ‘us’ giving to ‘them’. This is particularly common amongst health professionals (myself included), where the whole essence of our profession is helping others.
However, the band-aid cure might actually impair long-term outcomes, rather than enhance them. This is the same issue that has been debated within international development, that just giving things to people is important in terms of decreasing suffering, but can also become disempowering. Soup kitchens are essential in terms of ensuring that people have their basic needs for nutrition met, but for every soup kitchen there could be a community garden that allows people to be involved in meeting their own nutritional needs.
I have been exploring models of enhancing street-level health care in London. The concern is that although people experiencing homelessness have access to a variety of primary care services, they frequently leave concerns far too long because of accessibility to these services. This would be alleviated to some extent by having health professionals on the street with backpacks and access to resources. However, a friend has continued to warn me that what homeless people don’t need is more health professionals, but more friends who happen to be health professionals. It’s about relationship first, living in solidarity with others, and cure comes second.