Stories can open up and create space, though not always. Stories told can also hurt, inflicting disaster upon another and taking away space already nonexistent. Recent stories published in The Gazette have focused upon communities referred to as unhoused or unsheltered or as experiencing homelessness. These stories have attempted to shed light upon these communities in focus, but in doing so have created and perpetuated fear in the “surrounding” community. This fear further takes away from any opportunity to truly and dynamically offer care for another or open up space for us to consider what another experiences within their lives.
In this way, these recent stories have done real work in the world. No story is a neutral reporting of facts; rather, stories are told, and heard, in specific contexts. When we tell stories about other people, we both reflect and continue to shape our own imaginings of who “other people” are. This work of stories in turn demands our response and attention, as well as our care. Care in our storytelling, and care in our actions, is predicated on our understanding of others as also being complete human persons. If we imagined people experiencing homelessness to be real people with real lives, we wouldn’t confidently claim that there are “three distinct categories of people experiencing homelessness,” and we wouldn’t call living on the street for a week “going homeless.” The abject absence of care that has been missing from these published moments in turn has amplified disconnection and taken away from any chance that we have of working toward fullness.
What would, or could, we say instead? How else could we consider the lives of others, especially those who seemingly/supposedly live very “different lives” from our own? Can that difference be confronted further in order to expose the relation/relationship that might be possible for us as individuals, as well as communities? We know instinctively how it feels to try to create and navigate relationship through our stories, even across forms of difference: we speak generously and diplomatically about our neighbors, coworkers, and relatives in order to show “kindness,” protect their reputations, and preserve opportunities for us to grow in closeness and understanding. Turning away from this same spirit of relation and relationship when we discuss people experiencing homelessness is a willful act of refusal, and it should strike us as significant.
We must consider for whom we allow grace and from whom we seek to learn more. If we are able to recognize that we have much to learn from one another, even from those whom we don’t often view in that way, a new dialogue might at least become possible. This means that we must recognize that there is much more to learn from those we term as unhoused or experiencing homelessness. When we do grow in closeness and understanding, new forms of community become possible. This experience seems especially elusive right now, both because of physical distance and because of the distance of difference. The fear and disdain present in recent opinion writing on people experiencing homelessness indicates that this learning does not arise through faulty and self-serving “experiments.”
If we can’t imagine what we might say to open potential for community, if we can’t imagine speaking in a generous way about someone, perhaps the path doesn’t point us toward saying anything at all. It doesn’t even point us toward conducting an “experiment” and then saying something. Dialogue, after all, is also about asking questions. So what might come next? A new set of questions? Might we get help figuring out what questions to ask? Who could we ask for help with this? Might we ask these communities themselves?
Anna Vivian is a student at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver. Casimir Bemski, Ph.D., teaches at the Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver.