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Episode 2: Discussing the myths surrounding homelessness with Professor Steve Joordens

April 26th, 2022

In this episode of Beyond the Blankets, we uncover some myths that are widespread regarding the homeless community by featuring a special guest! We are pleased to welcome Professor Steve Joordens, a professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough, to the podcast! This episode, we cover misconceptions including how homelessness is considered a choice, how the age demographic of this community is distributed, and how current policy puts the homeless at a disadvantage. We also cover potential ways to help the homeless as a society. 

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Resource Links and Show Notes

Learn more about Desmond and his organization, Houselink, which provides a variety of services to the homeless community, including housing: https://houselink.on.ca

Discover Professor Joordens' learning tool, peerScholar, which enabled the collaborative homelessness project in an undergraduate course which first motivated our discussion with him: https://www.peerscholar.com/

Visit our Spotify page for the Beyond the Blankets podcast show: https://open.spotify.com/show/1aTSFeDKc3UuGdU3zG9Ejr

Links to our Instagram and other social media feeds can be found here: https://blanketsforto.ca/contact

Transcript

Transcription provided by Zaynab Assem and William Huang

[00:00:00] Zaynab: Hello everyone! Welcome to episode two of Beyond the Blankets. My name is Zaynab Aseem. I'm one of your hosts today, and one of the executive members here at Blankets for Toronto, and I'm joined by my co-host, Ayush. Do you want to take it away? 

[00:00:28] Ayush: Hello everyone. My name is Ayush and I'm the Director of Public Affairs for BTO. And essentially some of my responsibilities include communicating with individuals outside the organization, such as MPs, about the systemic issues that we see surrounding homelessness itself. But today I'm glad to announce that we have Professor Joordens onboard who is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. So, hello, Professor Joordens! And like I mentioned, it's a pleasure to have you here. And if you would like, you can give a brief introduction about yourself to our audience.

[00:01:58] Professor Joordens: Oh sure. It's a real pleasure to be here and just a real pleasure to see what you guys are doing. And the fact that it may have stemmed from the classes is just very, very cool. So most of you guys just know I'm the professor of Intro Psych at UofT Scarborough and it's a really big class, so I get to meet a lot of students and I like to do some crazy things in the class every now and then to get students more engaged with the material. And so one of the things related to this, I assume we're going to talk about, is a project we all did around homelessness and just getting you guys a sense of that and challenging you to dispel some myths of homelessness. So again, I think it was a great project. I really enjoyed it. And it's really cool to think that it may have spawned some of you guys becoming passionate about this and making a difference. So I just want to say thank you for running with us and doing what you were doing. It is really cool!

[00:01:52] Zaynab: Thank you so much professor for just being a part of this. And I'm really glad that you mentioned the activity. Professor Joordens is actually the founder and co-developer of peerScholar, which I absolutely adore. It's this collaborative platform where students get to engage in peer-to-peer feedback. And that's essentially where this activity took place. It was a work integrated learning activity, which was centered around homelessness, and in particular discussing the myths on homelessness. And that's going to be our topic for this podcast. Professor Joordens, what I really wanted to ask you was why homelessness?Like what made you think: “This is the activity that I’m doing and it's going to be on homelessness”. So what's your take on that? 

[00:02:35] Professor Joordens: Yeah, so a couple of things I'll mention there. One, I'll put on my geeky educator hat for a little bit. I came to the opinion a while ago that, although every intro psych class for me is another intro psych class, for you guys it's your intro psych class. And you only have one. And if we can make that special in some way, if we can give it an identity that distinguishes it from other ones then, then I think that brings the group together around that a little bit.

[00:03:03] Professor Joordens: So, we've done a few of these work integrated learning projects. An early one was counseling the government on effective ways to do e-learning because a lot of students weren't happy with what they'd seen. We've given mental health advice to new immigrant populations in previous ones, and this year I just happened to meet Desmond. So Desmond is a member of this organization called Houselink. And he just is a compelling individual. You guys saw some interviews with them, and he was a guy that was on his way to be a sort of business investor kind of guy, and reached a point in his life where he felt like that really wasn't what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. And he made a huge shift from what could be like high paying, whatever, to something that, for lack of a better word, fed his soul. Something, something that he felt was really important. And, so he was working for HomeLink. Having a few chats with him, I thought “wow, this is something the students could really kind of resonate with.” [00:04:00] Professor Joordens: It's something we all, you know, we see homeless people around and we make quick decisions or quick thoughts about them, but we often don't spend time to really consider how they got there, what their situation is. And the extent to which we maybe should or should not support them. That's a political issue where people always have to think through where they stand. And so, I thought it would be good for you guys just to be exposed to it. To think about it. And maybe I hoped some people might become passionate about it. Here you are!

[00:04:29] Zaynab: I'm really glad that's something you brought up because intro psych is one of the biggest classes at UTSC. I think it has like around 1000 kids, which is absolutely crazy. And I just really appreciated the fact that you decided to bring up homelessness because it is just something so crucial. And, since I was around one thousand kids, there were so many projects. But do you want to discuss some of the projects or interesting results you've found from this activity?

[00:04:54] Professor Joordens: I think the first thing for me, and this is the other part of the story, I think that we'll say is that for me, too, I like to learn about these things. I feel like when we become in contact with an organization and work with them for a year, I'm left with a lot more knowledge, a lot more understanding and a more informed perspective on that. One of the events that happened – I always do this along the way – I have a little interview with Desmond, you can kind of get to know who he is and what he's about. But a little later we had an interview where Desmond brought a person who was formerly homeless who is now with houselink, an individual named John who was just very well-spoken and John lives on in my mind. I hear John's voice often, especially when I think about homeless people. So for me, just that interaction with John was really important to me. He raised some issues that maybe we'll talk about at some point in this podcast about why it is important for society to help people make that step to a home and how it then enables them to potentially gain employment and other things that they couldn't do otherwise. 

[00:06:00] Professor Joordens: That was very powerful, but when we got to the actual activity, and just to give people a sense: The way the activity works is kind of weird because we have you all thinking about this real-world problem. We have you working in groups of four, which I'm doing to try to work on your collaboration skills and your communication skills and all that. And each group was creating these public service announcements. There was a wide range! Some of them ended up being these posters where someone imagined on social media, but also physical posters that could be out there at bus stops or whatnot. One captured me quite deeply. There was a group of students that went downtown and chatted with homeless people and just had these great discussions about “how did you end up here?” and you hear their stories. You’re suddenly realizing it's like somebody said, “I came from across the country because a friend said I could stay with him while I found a job in Toronto, but then the friend didn't let me stay with them. And I found myself in Toronto, I didn't have the money to go back.” And so now he ends up where he is. 

[00:07:00] Professor Joordens: The really cool thing about the students talking to these people is first of all, they treated everybody with so much respect and dignity that I thought that was really heartening to see. But then secondly, when they left, they gave them a package of toiletries and toothbrushes and things that would be useful. I know blankets are in your title, so it’s that notion. You could tell that for the homeless people themselves: this doesn't happen very much. That people don't talk to them like they're human beings. Having some young people come and talk to them like they're human beings and then leave them in a friendly way. I don't know. There's a look on some of their faces where I thought that they just made their day. Those students caring maybe defied myths that they had, which is a myth that nobody cares. When they see somebody that does care, you can tell that it kind of made them think a little differently. So, those ones really stuck in my mind as well, but there was such a range of great projects.

[00:07:54] Professor Joordens: So actually, let me just mention quickly, just so people understand how this works: There were about 400 groups of four students or 500 groups of four students. So we have you guys first assess each other's work. So you guys get to see what some of the other groups did. You guys score those other groups. And that allows us to find the top 10. I think we ended up with a top 9 this time, just because there was a tie between 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 or something so top nine seemed like a better breakpoint. Then, we went back to the Homelink group and then they ended up choosing the top one, two and three, etc. You guys were in the top, no? Weren’t you guys in the top?

[00:08:30] Zaynab: No, but I was really happy to see a lot of the groups out there. And it was so enlightening to see other stereotypes being handled because we went with one, but there were other groups telling other stereotypes, so it was just really enlightening to see. And I really liked how you mentioned homeless individuals with their own distinct stories which are often overlooked, which is also something we’ll get to later in this podcast. But I guess I'm just going to hand it over to Ayush now. 

[00:09:00] Professor Joordens: Okay, cool. 

[00:09:02] Ayush: I think that that was really fascinating about the results that you kind of showed us about the project. And, of course, that particular story of how you had a project where students went downtown in particular and discussed with the homeless individuals themselves about their stories. I know that is something that we even do sometimes as an organization as well. Some of our members often go downtown to donate these items. And I think recently some of our members, when they went, encountered an individual who had an interesting story because he was from South Korea and he actually used to be in the army in South Korea. And unfortunately, he didn't like the way he was being treated. So, he kind of shifted here. And unfortunately, due to some circumstances, he ended up becoming homeless, but he was appreciative of us donating items. So it was nice to see all these different stories.

[00:09:55] Professor Joordens: When you think of the trajectory a lot of these people go on, then yes. Something brings them to the street where they're in that situation where they don't have a place to go. But at that point they are still fairly “human” and I'll tell you what I mean by that in a moment. But imagine once you reach that point, nobody wants to talk to you. Everybody wants to walk past you. They don't even want to look you in the eye. You know, what does that do to somebody, just psychologically, when feeling like, “wow, I'm like a nobody. I'm sitting here like I don't exist. Like I'm invisible. Like nobody cares.” And then what does it do to that person when you guys show up and talk to them and look them in the eye and give them a blanket. That's the force you're fighting, which is a very negative force. That feeling of being invisible, but you can defeat it relatively easily and with a lot of power. And that's why I think it's so cool what you’re doing.

[00:04:00] Professor Joordens: It's something we all, you know, we see homeless people around and we make quick decisions or quick thoughts about them, but we often don't spend time to really consider how they got there, what their situation is. And the extent to which we maybe should or should not support them. That's a political issue where people always have to think through where they stand. And so, I thought it would be good for you guys just to be exposed to it. To think about it. And maybe I hoped some people might become passionate about it. Here you are!

[00:04:29] Zaynab: I'm really glad that's something you brought up because intro psych is one of the biggest classes at UTSC. I think it has like around 1000 kids, which is absolutely crazy. And I just really appreciated the fact that you decided to bring up homelessness because it is just something so crucial. And, since I was around one thousand kids, there were so many projects. But do you want to discuss some of the projects or interesting results you've found from this activity?

[00:04:54] Professor Joordens: I think the first thing for me, and this is the other part of the story, I think that we'll say is that for me, too, I like to learn about these things. I feel like when we become in contact with an organization and work with them for a year, I'm left with a lot more knowledge, a lot more understanding and a more informed perspective on that. One of the events that happened – I always do this along the way – I have a little interview with Desmond, you can kind of get to know who he is and what he's about. But a little later we had an interview where Desmond brought a person who was formerly homeless who is now with houselink, an individual named John who was just very well-spoken and John lives on in my mind. I hear John's voice often, especially when I think about homeless people. So for me, just that interaction with John was really important to me. He raised some issues that maybe we'll talk about at some point in this podcast about why it is important for society to help people make that step to a home and how it then enables them to potentially gain employment and other things that they couldn't do otherwise. 

[00:06:00] Professor Joordens: That was very powerful, but when we got to the actual activity, and just to give people a sense: The way the activity works is kind of weird because we have you all thinking about this real-world problem. We have you working in groups of four, which I'm doing to try to work on your collaboration skills and your communication skills and all that. And each group was creating these public service announcements. There was a wide range! Some of them ended up being these posters where someone imagined on social media, but also physical posters that could be out there at bus stops or whatnot. One captured me quite deeply. There was a group of students that went downtown and chatted with homeless people and just had these great discussions about “how did you end up here?” and you hear their stories. You’re suddenly realizing it's like somebody said, “I came from across the country because a friend said I could stay with him while I found a job in Toronto, but then the friend didn't let me stay with them. And I found myself in Toronto, I didn't have the money to go back.” And so now he ends up where he is. 

[00:07:00] Professor Joordens: The really cool thing about the students talking to these people is first of all, they treated everybody with so much respect and dignity that I thought that was really heartening to see. But then secondly, when they left, they gave them a package of toiletries and toothbrushes and things that would be useful. I know blankets are in your title, so it’s that notion. You could tell that for the homeless people themselves: this doesn't happen very much. That people don't talk to them like they're human beings. Having some young people come and talk to them like they're human beings and then leave them in a friendly way. I don't know. There's a look on some of their faces where I thought that they just made their day. Those students caring maybe defied myths that they had, which is a myth that nobody cares. When they see somebody that does care, you can tell that it kind of made them think a little differently. So, those ones really stuck in my mind as well, but there was such a range of great projects.

[00:07:54] Professor Joordens: So actually, let me just mention quickly, just so people understand how this works: There were about 400 groups of four students or 500 groups of four students. So we have you guys first assess each other's work. So you guys get to see what some of the other groups did. You guys score those other groups. And that allows us to find the top 10. I think we ended up with a top 9 this time, just because there was a tie between 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 or something so top nine seemed like a better breakpoint. Then, we went back to the Homelink group and then they ended up choosing the top one, two and three, etc. You guys were in the top, no? Weren’t you guys in the top?

[00:08:30] Zaynab: No, but I was really happy to see a lot of the groups out there. And it was so enlightening to see other stereotypes being handled because we went with one, but there were other groups telling other stereotypes, so it was just really enlightening to see. And I really liked how you mentioned homeless individuals with their own distinct stories which are often overlooked, which is also something we’ll get to later in this podcast. But I guess I'm just going to hand it over to Ayush now. 

[00:09:00] Professor Joordens: Okay, cool. 

[00:09:02] Ayush: I think that that was really fascinating about the results that you kind of showed us about the project. And, of course, that particular story of how you had a project where students went downtown in particular and discussed with the homeless individuals themselves about their stories. I know that is something that we even do sometimes as an organization as well. Some of our members often go downtown to donate these items. And I think recently some of our members, when they went, encountered an individual who had an interesting story because he was from South Korea and he actually used to be in the army in South Korea. And unfortunately, he didn't like the way he was being treated. So, he kind of shifted here. And unfortunately, due to some circumstances, he ended up becoming homeless, but he was appreciative of us donating items. So it was nice to see all these different stories.

[00:09:55] Professor Joordens: When you think of the trajectory a lot of these people go on, then yes. Something brings them to the street where they're in that situation where they don't have a place to go. But at that point they are still fairly “human” and I'll tell you what I mean by that in a moment. But imagine once you reach that point, nobody wants to talk to you. Everybody wants to walk past you. They don't even want to look you in the eye. You know, what does that do to somebody, just psychologically, when feeling like, “wow, I'm like a nobody. I'm sitting here like I don't exist. Like I'm invisible. Like nobody cares.” And then what does it do to that person when you guys show up and talk to them and look them in the eye and give them a blanket. That's the force you're fighting, which is a very negative force. That feeling of being invisible, but you can defeat it relatively easily and with a lot of power. And that's why I think it's so cool what you’re doing.

[00:10:49] Ayush: Thank you. We appreciate it so much. Just transitioning into the next topic: I know how you talk about how sometimes we just kind of ignore these issues sometimes as individuals and that's where we want to get into these specific myths about homelessness and kind of inform or educate our audience surrounding them. And I know that sometimes many individuals think that homelessness is a choice. There are approximately – we’ve done our research —  200,000 Canadians that experience homelessness each year. But we were just wondering, where do you think this myth stems from in your opinion?

[00:11:28] Professor Joordens: Well, there are these notions that some people have. One of the things in psychology that people talk about is the “just world” hypothesis. Some people hold on to this notion of a “just world” hypothesis and people who do think that if something bad is happening to people, they probably deserved it for some reason. They kind of ignore the fact that life includes random things that happen to us. Sometimes really good things, sometimes really bad things. Sometimes so bad that they totally dominate our life. And so like as one example: for a lot of the young people we see that are homeless, quite often they “choose”. So you could say homelessness is a choice, but they “choose” to be homeless because their other option is horrible. So they may have an abusive family where, “do I want to stay home and get beat up and abused? Or do I want to go on the street where I still don't feel safe, but at least I know I'm not going to be beat up every night.” Is that a choice? It’s a horrible choice to have to make. And so when somebody sees someone like that and they think “oh, they're lazy or they're whatever, and if they just bothered, they could be out of that situation”, that's not always the case. Often for reasons that we'll probably discuss, we need to give them a little bit of a lift. We need to give them an address and a phone number. We don't understand how important an address and a phone number are to securing other opportunities. And once somebody finds themselves without those things, then it can be very hard to get off the street. So often they're there because that's the only option they had. And then they get caught there. That's where we realize that they are human beings; they would probably rather live another way than the way they're living. 

[00:13:13] Ayush: I think it's particularly fascinating, too. Especially the phone number and how that can have a significant impact too. I've heard many stories about how homeless individuals may go to look for jobs, but the employers themselves don't have any contact information to reach out to them again. And then I think we also see it in terms of the myth of meritocracy, right? Where sometimes individuals have this misconception that hard work will ultimately result in success, but sometimes there are these systemic barriers that keep individuals from getting or achieving this success in the first place. 

[00:13:55] Professor Joordens: Yes! John was telling some stories. I'm not going to get all the details right I'm afraid. But I know there is some assistance that's made available to homeless people but there's some weird rules around it. So in the sense that if they choose to work and they get paid – they don't ever tend to get paid very much, there are groups that will hire homeless people for construction projects or cleanup projects or whatever it may be – they often lose more from that benefit than they gain from the pay. They're actually punished for getting out there and doing work. Just the way these mechanisms work and that's why we need attention. We need to be talking to ministers and such. We need to let them know that these people need just the facilitation, just those little helps they can to help themselves. But right now, often those who help themselves hurt themselves in the way I'm describing. They end up financially worse off, and any one of us in that situation would probably say, “Well, there's no sense working then,” because we're back to psychology now, the operant conditioning being rewarded for engaging in this behavior, so “why would I do it?” So I think we certainly want to do what we can as a society. If you are willing to take certain steps, then we are going to reward you for those steps because we want to see you succeed as well. And that's good for everybody. And so we really kind of have to understand that this is a potential taxpayer sitting there that's not paying taxes right now, but if we can help them into a job and into a life, then they're going to benefit and that's going to benefit us and it's just the human thing to do for them 

[00:15:37] Zaynab: Right. That's actually really interesting how you also mentioned youth homelessness, because that is something that I wanted to get into. It was also interesting because in our activity in PSYA01, one of the myths was that we tend to assume the elderly or the older white population to be most homeless. But, according to our research at any given point in time, there are around 35 to 45 thousand youth experiencing homelessness. Even more so during this horrendous pandemic and 92% of these homeless individuals face this adversity because of these factors that you've mentioned, whether it be conflicts with their caregivers and abuse whether it be sexual abuse or emotional abuse. And this made me think that the system that we have right now, should it be such that we start categorizing these individuals to give them specific help? Because the system that we have right now is this one common thing. You donate. But we see these diverse reasons that would make someone end up in this situation, as you mentioned. I guess that my question really boils down to: what should every group of homeless individuals be given the same kind of services? Or should we start dividing amongst these homeless individuals to provide specific services? 

[00:16:53] Professor Joordens:It's tricky. There could certainly be different groups that have different needs so to speak. And I think the other thing implied by your question, and then it sort of exposes the difficulty and the complexity of dealing with this, is for a young person if we don't help them get off the street when they're young, they're probably never going to be off the street. And so they are going to be in that situation for 40, 50, 60 years potentially. Whereas if the person's 50 years old, at one level you can do some sort of math in your head and say, well, let's help these young people get their life back on track as I still have a lot of time, etc. They also may have something special – for example, we've been talking about abuse as a potential issue. So sometimes these people are not just homeless, they are psychologically traumatized. They've been through some difficult times and in some cases, therapeutic options might be more relevant for some populations than others. Substance abuse options might be more relevant for some populations than others. So certainly, finding ways of targeting our support probably makes sense. 

[00:18:00] Professor Joordens: But, I want to go back to that thing we've talked about and that we learned again from John. That address and phone number is key to everybody. And so there are some things. I don't know if you guys have had Desmond on, so maybe you should think about having Desmond and John on your podcast. But that's the kind of thing where there are certain things we could try to give to all of them. In Desmond’s case, they try to actually bring them into a home and actually settle them in a home. But even if we could somehow have addresses and phone numbers that people could use when they're applying for jobs, because if you were applying for a job and there's that phone number line and you have nothing to put in, it's almost like what Ayush just said. It's not even necessarily that the business is biased against you for not having them, but how do they contact you? If you don't have an email address and you don't have a phone number, they would just throw your application away because they just have no way to do anything with it. So I think there are some basic needs that we'd like to give to all of them. But yes, knowing how they got there, understanding the context they're in and then being able to help them get through which could be very different for different groups. So in that case, I agree with you 100%. 

[00:19:09] Zaynab: Definitely. Just the importance of having a number and an email address, even more so during this virtual world we're living in right now makes it even more so important. Another thing I’d like to point out is that you mentioned that a lot of these individuals go through this psychological trauma. Ayush and I were discussing a few days ago about how this can affect the youth. Ayush, do you want to ask that question you had?

[00:19:33] Ayush: I know that you touched upon it a little bit. About how these are critical stages in youth development and how if we don't do something now, then they're likely to end up on this track for 40 to 50 years or however long their life may be. And so I was just wondering that because it occurs at such a young stage, what are the psychological effects of these events and how does it affect them cognitively?

[00:19:58] Professor Joordens: We can go back to a couple of things, but one that comes to mind is Maslow's hierarchy. And so Maslow's hierarchy says we have to have certain needs met before we can go up to another level of needs. And the very lowest level of needs are your basic physiological needs, which include shelter. We all need shelter. So that's the first challenge of a homeless person is to find shelter and you give a night to find food, to find the basic biological needs. The next one up by the way is our safety needs. And so the idea is if you don't have your biological needs met and you don't have your safety needs met, that's where your mind is. And if you're a young person on the street, they are also much more open to victimization as a young person on the street. We know there's human trafficking and all sorts of things, horrible things that are going on. And so if you're a young person on the street, you have to watch out for that. 

[00:20:53] Professor Joordens: And then we say things like “why don't you get a job?” or whatever. It’s because the person's trying to survive largely and they're living at that survival level and so their mind does become sort of fixated on that. That’s where they’re kind of living and it does make it very difficult now for them to kind of think of other things. And sometimes they will use substances and various other things as a way of escaping the situation they're in. That's really the only way in some cases to escape. So they self-medicate. Now you have substance abuse issues that may be connected with it. But it's wrong to think the substance abuse issues took them there. It's usually the other way around. It's usually the situation they find themselves in. And then they turn to substances when available as some form of comfort. But yeah, they are wide open. And if it were you or I, we would just be worried about the next meal, where we're going to sleep tonight, is anybody going to take advantage of us or try to harm us in any way? 

[00:21:51] Professor Joordens: That's a horrible way to live if that's what's in your mind all the time. That's a very stressful place to be; that chronic anxiety can lead to other things. Exhaustion. Burnout. Helplessness or a sense of helplessness. A sense of powerlessness. So that’s the other psychological force. A lot of these people start believing – perhaps accurately in their life – that they have no control over what’s going to happen to them, and that all things just happen to them and they can't do anything about it. And so that can be very disempowering and it can make it hard when someone says, “Hey, why don't you just get a job?” It’s not always that easy when you've been in that position for a while. So it's really hard on the young people. 

[00:22:35] Professor Joordens: I'll mention one other thing too – and we kind of talked about it a little bit – but there was a show called “The Twilight Zone” back in the day and they always added all these weird, creepy little things. And one of the things they did is they had a crime that if somebody committed it, they had a spot put on their head. And if you had a spot on your head, nobody could talk to you. If they talk to you, then they also got the spot on their head. And so the idea was you still had freedom. You were still out there, but nobody would talk to you or look at you or do anything. And in this show, it just showed how these people would go crazy without that ability to have social connection. Social connection is so important to our mental and physical health, and so many of these people get disconnected and become isolated. That's a very cold and lonely place to be. It’s a kind of lifestyle where to look at them and be judgmental, you're really missing the point of how difficult their life is and how little they probably want to be living that way. It's just all they've been able to find. 

[00:23:36] Ayush: It was interesting to me how you even brought up Maslow's hierarchy of needs, because I know that at the highest level is self-actualization and sometimes we take it for granted that people like us are able to live life of self-actualization and of purpose and fulfillment, whereas individuals who are less fortunate have to unfortunately rely on survival and often feel neglected from individuals like that. So it was interesting to hear your perspective on that. Thank you so much for sharing. 

[00:24:06] Professor Joordens: And it's interesting how you can get knocked down a few levels and then I'll just bring us back to John again. When we asked John I guess you could say his “original story” if you're a superhero fan or the sort. His origin story started with divorce. He was reasonably happy and so he was probably at the social level, or higher, of Maslow's hierarchy, or maybe at the level of worrying about his competence and stuff like that. But then his wife left him and he said it was a really messy divorce. He said he didn't really respond to it very well. So he emotionally reacted in a negative way. Lost his job at about the same time. And then he suddenly finds himself from a normal-ish kind of existence to one where he doesn't have a job, doesn't have a home and he's living on the street. So suddenly he's sort of plunged down to this level, having known what it was like to not be there. But now feeling kind of stuck where he was. So “but for the grace of God” is the kind of term when we see people. We never know whether something could happen to us tomorrow that could send us into a tailspin and we could end up there. And we sure hope people would care a little bit and at least treat us like we don’t exist once we get there. 

[00:25:18] Zaynab: No, yeah, definitely. Especially like the label thing mentioned, gosh, I can't even imagine that happening. It’s almost like in university you always worry about getting an F on your transcript and how that affects your life. Just imagine having this kind of label on you. I can’t imagine what these homeless individuals go through who have been labeled as homeless and then having to get back to their life. I think you mentioned how people also tend to go down the drug path and the criminal path. People almost always confused that in the cause and effect relation. They always think “Oh, because you chose this path of being with drugs or being a criminal, you ended up on the streets,” whereas oftentimes, or most times I should say, it’s the other way around. I think we also did some research on that and we found out that only like 20% of homeless individuals have been found to use drugs. So again, I think you've touched on this, but why do you think this myth even came about to me? Why do people not realize the actual relation and confuse it? 

[00:26:20] Professor Joordens: From a lot of people's perspective, you will see people asking for money. That's sort of their only way of getting food, etc. And occasionally you will see somebody – it's so easy for a stereotype to form – with a bottle in their hand while they're sitting there or whatnot. And so what humans will do will generalize very quickly. They will take a member or two … this is why any of us worry: if I see Canadians acting stupidly on the world stage, I'm like “oh no, they're going to think all Canadians are like that,” because we do that, right? And that's the same thing. You only need to see one or two people with a bottle beside them to say “all homeless people are like that.” And just as you suggest, that's massively wrong. Most of them are asking for money because they would like something to eat. And sometimes, by the way, people are confused when they say, “yeah, but I offered to give a homeless person something to eat and they didn't want it.” They are at such a place where people can victimize them in a variety of ways and they become non-trusting, often, of the rest of us until you show up with a blanket or something. But I bet even when you show up at first, I suspect the first few moments of the interaction are a little, “what are you guys about, what are you up to?” because when society ignores you, you start to not trust society. So I think that's part of it as well. So I think we will generalize and we want a reason sometimes to say they are different from us and that it's their fault. 

[00:28:00] Professor Joordens: And part of that is self-preservation. I throw in there the “grace of God” comment, but we don't really want to think that, right? We don't want to think that could be me. We want to think “no, no, they're there for a reason. And it's a reason that differentiates them from me, so I don't have to worry about that.” And so we kind of dehumanize them. We try to make it their fault. And we try to think of the worst of them. We don't do any of this consciously, but I think it's just easier for us to kind of assume, “oh, it's their problem” because if it wasn't their fault, then maybe we should be doing something once you reach that line. And that was sort of the goal of challenging some of these myths. Once you start to realize “Oh no, these are just humans that have ended up in a horrible situation,” now suddenly you feel that empathy, you feel the desire to help. But if you can keep that inside – and that's the trick of war makers and all sorts of things – dehumanize the other individual and then you can go around and not care about them. And so I think assuming they're all drug users, that's a way of just dehumanizing them, and “so it's their fault they are there, so it’s not my problem, I don't have to worry about it. I can just step over them and go on with my day,” right?  

[00:29:10] Zaynab: I feel like that is something really essential because oftentimes we look at these people and we just do not want to be associated with them, right? We help them, but I feel like not many of us go deep down to reflect like “they're humans”. At the end of the day, they once upon a time had a life like we have right now which we’re very fortunate enough to have. And that's also something I really liked about the activity we did. This sentiment that I feel like many first-years shared. I also saw many of the activities going around and asking people. I actually saw this one interesting project where one of my friends, her activity involved going around the Scarborough campus and asking these Scarborough students “what do you think about homeless individuals? Do you think it's a choice?” And it was so shocking for me to see almost 50% agree to it. I was like “gosh, I just wish this activity could be implemented on a larger scale with the entire Scarborough campus.” But yes, it brings me down to stories like John’s where they had a life and they had a story which needs to be shared. It’s so puzzling to me why these stories are never considered and we tend to look at the negative side of things, which happens to be how they became homeless, which again is not their fault. They were faced with these adversities. And I think Ayush would like to add something about why these stories are not considered. 

[00:30:26] Ayush: I think you touched upon this, Professor Joordens – I'm going to relate back to psychology, too – it's kind of like that initial implicit bias, right? You see a homeless individual with an alcohol bottle and you assume “maybe it’s because of that.” And then it's only when you overcome this initial bias when you start to empathize with them. But I think that is something that many individuals have a hard time doing. And so it’s hard for them to consider life stories. I know we touched on this earlier in the podcast where we talked about how many of these individuals didn't have a choice in the sense that they experienced early abuse, so it was “either abuse or be homeless”. So why are these life stories hardly considered? 

[00:32:21] Professor Joordens: Yeah. We have this notion in psychology called “signifiers” or whatnot, and it relates to people like “why do you want to wear a certain brand t-shirt or sneaker.” What we wear, what we drive, what house we live in communicates something about us and it communicates it in a sort of implicit way. You show up with a flashy car and your friends are kind of impressed, so it's just cool. And it's like “wow, this guy must be a cool guy” or something like that. So they draw all these inferences based on what we look like and etc. And of course homeless people “wear” their homelessness, right? They may look scruffier than we do. They probably haven't had a shower as recently as we have. They're wearing clothes that haven't been washed. So very quickly those things communicate to most people that “oh, this is a person that I don't want to get to know, I don't want to be connected with, I certainly don't want to go up and ask them how they came to be homeless,” which is something you can do by the way. One of the myths is about homeless people being dangerous and, by and large, they are not dangerous in any way. By and large, they will be very open and appreciative of any sort of social outreach. But we often deny that because we see the signifier and we go, “oh, I don't know, they look kind of scary. They look kind of whatever” and we avoid them. And I think part of it is maybe they look “scary” part of it is “Wow, I don't want to admit that it could be me or I don't want to think of it that way, so I'd rather just think of them as another class of human being; that they are there because they deserve it.” All these other myths, I think, are as much there to preserve our own feelings for why we're not helping, because we have to talk to ourselves about “why am I doing nothing?” and so we need excuses and I think a lot of these become excuses. So pieces of clothing can kind of trigger that.

[00:33:00] Professor Joordens: There was another medicine class at the same time who was also considering working with the homeless people on a work integrated learning project. And theirs was about when the homeless person comes for medical needs, which we never even think of. But when a homeless person walks into an emergency room in a hospital, sometimes, apparently, they're biased against it there as well. The assumption of medical staff – because it's just a very human natural thing to do “us and them” and you very quickly do the “them” so “they're not like us, they're a little different” and often they have a lot of trouble communicating their needs well and getting the same sort of care that the rest of us would get. So it does become this sort of systemic bias where they feel lesser than almost in every context that they walk into and psychologically, that's just really, really hard. You either have to get a tough skin and become very individualistic. Hopefully you have a friend or two, hopefully, because social connection is so important but otherwise, it’s a tough slog. I think if we could just live a day to translate into their body – I think that'd be a fun project actually – and to have students dress as homeless people, look like homeless people, spend some time in the street and see how others react to them and feel what that feels like. I think we would think a little differently if we were in their shoes for a little bit. 

[00:34:20] Ayush: Yeah, I definitely agree. That’s why we tried to start this podcast to raise awareness about the feelings that homeless individuals themselves face in terms of social exclusion as well. I think it was really interesting to just hear your thoughts and kind of insights on the message that we discussed today. I think now we're just going to wrap off our podcast. We just really wanted to quickly reflect on this issue and gain your insights into future directions surrounding homelessness. One question that we had – me and Zaynab – was how can we implement a safe road to recovery, both physically and psychologically, for homeless individuals?

[00:35:02] Professor Joordens: The important thing to know is that there are the Desmonds and others out there that are working very hard. So one of the first things that I'd say is that I love the fact that students at UTSC are caring about this issue. So the first thing I would say: Find out who else is in this space. Let's call this a problem space. There are other allies of yours that are out there and if you can find a niche – and you've already found one, by the way, as students your age talking to students your age (students your age listen best to students your age, they don't listen so well to somebody else talking to them, and so the fact that you’re taking up the flag and being out there and talking about this is something I bet there aren't a lot of other organizations doing) – then connect with them. And in terms – you mentioned this before – MPs. We live in a democracy and the way we make changes is by making strong cases to people who are in the power to make change. And so a student seeing students advocating for homeless people, and potentially young homeless people, – that’s sort of connected to the niche you guys might have – to say, “we want to be their voices and we want to take this in places where they would have a lot of trouble because they were worried about their next meal” and to be their advocates would be very powerful. And you're in a strong position. I would certainly say to connect with the Desmonds and the others out there and learn because they've been at this game for awhile.

[00:36:38] Professor Joordens: Desmond said a lot of times that his avenue is through political stuff and trying to get politicians to come and see and experience the world, but also making them realize the policies now in place. Like we mentioned that one where if John works, he's punished. And that's one of the things that Desmond is trying to say: “Hey, we got to change this. We have to reward them for working” But you have to get your voices heard and often you guys are not the ones where we expect political activism from young people. Aren't generally kind of known for that. That gives you extra power, to the extent that you see young people passionate about something and doing something. That's really cool. And of course, that was part of the whole project as well: trying to enhance your critical thinking, your creative thinking, your communication skills so that you can take on something like this and do it effectively and stand in front of a Member of Parliament and give a good reasoned argument for why something's broken and needs to be fixed. I would love to see you guys doing that. I’d be so proud. 

[00:37:38] Zaynab: Like how you mentioned, young people tend to listen to more young people. I am an advocate for that. And I think that's also when – again, connecting it to psychology – when emotional contagion comes in, right? Because when you see someone experiencing this emotion, you kind of think “oh, what is it?” And somehow you connect to that, which I just find absolutely amazing. And just this activity, I noticed how the sentiment was shared. Awareness was definitely increased and this just got me thinking about how homelessness is a persistent issue, even more so during COVID. How important do you think it is to make this an essential topic in schools and institutions, even more so with activities like this work integrated learning activity where everyone kind of collaborated together to come up with a topic that is given some kind of exposure, like in our case, housing? 

[00:38:39] Professor Joordens: What I realize is that I try to inspire you guys to become activists for something, but I try to also keep that sort of a little open. There's so many fantastic causes, so many things where young, strong, smart voices can really make a difference. And so, in a general sense, I'm always trying to prod students to consider becoming activists and to find their “thing”. Homelessness is a very good “thing”. It's certainly something where we could use a lot of … The idea of young voices speaking out on this is just really kind of cool to me. So that’s the general idea of these sorts of things. But I think that the homelessness issue … we live in a city and it's a much more of a city based issue. In fact, we live in the biggest city in Canada. We probably have the largest homeless population. If we could find – “solutions” is too strong of a word – the notion we have as a democratic country and as a semi-socialist kind of countries, so we take some of the money that we all earn and we try to find valuable things to do with it and things that will help other Canadians. And I think in a case like homelessness, what makes it so special is it's just about lifting them a little, you know, so it's not like we were going to give them a house and $40 000 a year (not that $40 000 will take you far in Toronto anyways). But it’s not that. That's not the solution. The solution is let's get them to a place where they can have an address, where they can have a phone number, where they can have guaranteed safety of some sort. And then they will be empowered to take those next steps for themselves, which is what we really want, right? We don't want to give them a job, but we'd love to give them clean clothes and a shower and the opportunity to go win that job. Right now, it's just that there's so many cards stacked against them, they just can't get there. If we lift them to that level, we can make a big impact in so many people's lives and just feel really good about doing it. So that’s why I thought the homeless issue was kind of interesting in that way. It shows how a little bit of investment can lead to a lot of return. Yes, it is about that person, but it's also about society. We want to be a friendly society to our fellow Canadians. 

[00:40:56] Zaynab: I agree. And that is something that we strive to do here at Blankets for Toronto as well. We're here at UTSC advocating for these marginalized communities, particularly the homeless. And for our viewers out there, if anyone after listening to this podcast and from Professor Joordens amazing insight, feel like contributing to our cause, then feel free to follow us on our social handles that I will be linking in the description. Feel free to contact us on our website and we would be more than happy to talk to you. Professor Joordens, this was just such an insightful conversation. And I feel like you really added a dimension here to our viewers. I'm just so happy that this activity even happened in the first place and seeing you here, because I was so used to seeing you on TopHat. This was really amazing and I really want to thank you for your time. I hope our viewers get to benefit from this. So once again, thank you so much!

[00:41:55] Professor Joordens: Thank you, Zaynab. Thank you, Ayush. I enjoyed the time very much and I have nothing but full respect for what you guys are doing. So fantastic. Good on you guys.

[00:41:05] Zaynab: Awesome, thank you so much!

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