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Why we have to talk about class when we talk about Stigmatisation of mental illness!

For the past 16 months my partner and I have been homeless. Or at least, we don’t have a regular home where we reside. Instead, we have been sleeping in our tent in all kinds of public places such as city parks, petrol stations, fields and gardens of other people and more nicely also next to rivers, in the mountains and in the desert. Some nights we spent in the house of generous people who gave us a bed to sleep in and food to eat.

The majority of the population, when thinking about homeless people, are having all kinds of automated, usually negative images, coming into their mind. Homeless people are often associated with drug addiction and mental illness. They are usually seen as people who are not willing or not able to work and rely on welfare, charity and/ or other people's money in general. Homeless people are one of the most stigmatised groups in society and suffer from extreme social exclusion. Personally, we have never had to deal with any kind of exclusion due to not having a permanent home.

Wherever we went, people were fascinated with our “vagabond” way of living and the choice of such lifestyle over a secure life with a secure job and secure place to sleep. In 2018 I was joining research about possible `voluntary homelessness” and when I spoke to professionals back then, everyone was telling us that there is no such thing. No one wants to be homeless – voluntarily. Well, WE chose being homeless, didn’t we? The answer is no. Because what might seem to be the same situation is in fact not. Even though we don’t have a rental agreement and a permanent home, we are not homeless per se. For further clarification, we have to look at the recent definition of homelessness.

According to the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness we understand that such predicament is defined as not only the lack of “[...] stable, safe, permanent, appropriate housing” but also “the immediate prospect means and the ability of acquiring it”, which defines a person as homeless. And THAT's the big difference. Even though we might not have a home NOW, we will have a home when we decide to end our nomad lifestyle.

We actually have a choice. People who don’t have the needed resources it takes to get into a home, they don’t have a choice. And that's when I understood that “real” homelessness is never voluntarily, because voluntariness always implies the existence of choice. But apart from that, I understood a much more important aspect. The stigma which lies on homeless people is actually the stigma of poverty.

It's the stigma of people who are seemingly not productive, if not to say lazy, who don’t contribute to the wealth of society but living off it. It's based on an understanding which categorises people by capitalist values – in those who are productive and those who are not.

Interestingly enough, even though we have never been judged for not having a roof over our heads, we definitely have been judged for not earning any money. Although we work a lot, some days even more than in the paid jobs we had before we left, we don’t make money with what we do. Our work has a greater purpose but the purpose is not generating money. Mentioning this fact caused quite a lot of abrupt endings of conversations – and that even included academic staff in universities who knew about our work as an NGO. So apart from being productive, all participation in our society is expected to benefit the economy in order for people to be seen as valuable members of the community.

Looking at stigma from that perspective explains why people with mental illness are being yet another highly stigmatised group in our society. Not only are they often being viewed as dangerous and unpredictable, but foremost as people who are unreliable, lazy and not able to work. They rely on services provided through governmental funding such as health services, welfare, social housing etc. As a matter of fact, in most western cultures, re-integration measures are often focused on getting people back to any kind of work.

Having a paid job is certainly a big factor of equal participation in society, as it provides some kind of freedom and choice and it also fulfils our human need to fit into the values of society. But work might not always be the best way for people to re-integrate. There might be other – more adequate and meaningful activities – which could help affected people in a much better way. Unfortunately, those measures are often either not available or highly underfunded. While some of those initiatives are getting financial support, the importance of such projects is still underrated by the majority of society, due to common stigma.

Knowing that, it is no surprise that Anti-Stigma projects worldwide often only advertise success stories of members of stigmatised groups. They tell stories of homeless people who worked in small jobs until they saved enough money to get back into a rental contract. They show people with mental illnesses who managed to cope with their symptoms with the help of therapy and medication. They show refugees who successfully run a business in their new home country. Sharing triumphal examples of people whose lives surprisingly improved despite all difficulties is what needs to be valued. But the truth is: those stories remain exceptions - reality talks about the schizophrenic woman in the countryside with no access to appropriate care.

It shows the old man who has been living on the streets for 30 years because no one wanted to employ a “hobo”. It is about refugees, who spent years of their lives in a shelter as no landlord accepted them as renters, just for the fact of them not being “local”. Attractive stories are written by the successors and unfortunately, neither the group of homeless people, not the mentally ill or refugees have a lot of those stories to tell. The majority remains stigmatised as they remain poor. Whether we like it or not, the struggle for participation is still a class struggle.

Class still provides the context in which conflict over race, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities and mental illness exist (Pincus 2011). Without realising that stigmatisation is nothing less than a tool to maintain class relations and prevent class mobility – all in favour of the ruling class – we will never be able to fight it. In a classless society, exclusion would not be necessary – stigmatisation would not be necessary. In a society without class it is most likely that homelessness would not exist. And if it would, then maybe people could have the choice to be “homeless” in the way WE chose to be – temporarily and with the necessary means and abilities to acquire a new home when we think we are ready to settle again.

Pincus, Fred L. (2011): Understanding Diversity. An introduction to Class, Race, Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Disability. 2nd Edition. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

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