Updated: Oct 15, 2021
Before you go any further in reading this, it is important that you understand what I am not: I am not a sociologist, psychologist, urban planner, or therapist. On matters of homelessness and addiction, I have far more questions than I have answers.
What I am, however, is a parent. I love my two boys more than anything. Becoming a parent has reshaped much of the way I see the world. In particular, it has changed the way that I view those living with addiction and/or experiencing homelessness in our community.
I often hear people speak disparagingly about our city’s “homeless population” and the “junkies” or “druggies” downtown. Honestly, more often than not the language used is even less flattering than that.
To this end, language matters.
When we describe someone first as being “homeless” or as a “junkie” or "druggie", we have effectively dehumanized them, robbing them of their identity and branding them by the unfortunate set of circumstances that they find themselves in. We do this, despite the fact that most of us understand that the individual in question finds them self in this situation due to extreme trauma most of us will never have to endure or comprehend. We need to reshape the way we view our neighbours and identify the individual as a “person experiencing homelessness” or as a “person experiencing addiction”. This is not just a matter of linguistics – it represents a critical shift towards creating a community where everyone is valued and respected. Each and every one of us is a person first, regardless of our lived experience.
This concept of “person first” language is not new. It has been a prevalent approach to describing people living with an illness or disability for decades. A recent study published by the Journal of Counselling and Development found that when individuals were referred to as a “person with schizophrenia” as opposed to “schizophrenic”, their counsellors were more likely to treat them with benevolence and kindness. The study presents these findings as “empirical evidence” in support of a “person first” approach to language.
So what does this have to do with being a parent?
I believe that my wife and I are doing the best we can do for our two boys. I think we make good choices for them, support them in making good choices for themselves, and that we are setting them up to grow into pro-social teens who will in turn transition into adults that have a positive impact on their community. We are engaged in our kids’ schooling, we put them in extra-curricular activities, we read to them, limit screen time, feed them a good diet, and prioritize outdoor active play.
Are we perfect parents? No. Are we doing the best we can do? I think so.
But, here’s the thing.
Despite our best efforts, it is entirely possible that one or both of our boys could end up experiencing addiction at some point in their life. Despite our best efforts, it is possible that one or both of our boys could end up experiencing homelessness at some point in their life. If this is the case, my hope as a parent is that their community will see them as a person first, and treat them with dignity, empathy, and, above all else, love.
Everyone is worthy of love.
So, for example, when I am asked why I support a supervised consumption site in our community, my answer is always the same. Pure and simple. If either of my kids ends up experiencing addiction, I want them to have every chance on earth to recover and rehabilitate. It is impossible to do that from inside a body bag in the morgue.
I don’t believe that the presence of a SCS will “promote illegal drug use” or will “create more drug users” in our community. I do believe, in my heart of hearts, that it will prevent someone’s child from succumbing to an overdose that could kill them. That is what matters to me. My support of a safe consumption site in Downtown Barrie comes from, above all else, a place of love and a belief that every life is worth saving.
When we support a harm-reduction approach, we place a value on the person ahead of the issue. This is what a caring and loving community does: it creates opportunities for its sons and daughters to reach their potential, regardless of the circumstances that they may find themselves in at any given stage of life. To do this, we need to destigmatize issues like homelessness and addiction, and it all begins with the language we use to describe those individuals living these experiences in our community.
Brian and his family live in Barrie. With a background in not for profit management, Brian holds a BA from Queen’s University in English Literature and History. You can follow him on Twitter at @bshell78.