I took the picture accompanying this blog post after historic floods left thousands of people in Southern Alberta without homes in 2013. Although their homelessness was short lived – neighbours took in neighbours and the Province provided temporary housing – it was the first time many residents had experienced life without a home.
According to a research paper by The Homeless Hub, over 235,000 Canadians will be homeless at least once in a year and 35,000 will be homeless on any given night. Lack of affordable housing is driving this trend. Eighteen percent of Canadians who rent (approximately 733,275 households) are living on low incomes, with over 50 percent of their income going towards rent. This puts them in a perilous situation where they are a paycheck away from homelessness.
Once a person becomes homeless, he or she faces conditions that increase their risk of illness and early death. It’s a difficult life with few opportunities for respite. New Zealand researchers, Darrin Hodgetts and Ottilie Stolte, discovered that respite in the form of leisure provided homeless people with periods of escape from the hardships of street life.
Hodgetts and Stolte recruited 99 participants from London (UK), Auckland (NZ), and Hamilton (NZ). They collected information about their participants’ experiences with homelessness through conversations, observation, interviews, and photographs taken by participants.
Hodgetts and Stolte found that leisure provided homeless people with the opportunity to use their imaginations and escape the difficulties of their daily lives. One participant enjoyed sitting by a fountain because:
It’s like a little piece of nature in the middle of the city so that appeals to me from an aesthetic point of view…
He also enjoyed listening to the water and found it a peaceful reprieve from his life on the streets.
Leisure also provided participants with opportunities to try and live normal lives. For some, this was achieved through gambling. One participant would go to a gambling establishment to bet small sums on the races and talk with other patrons about the races. It also provided participants with a potential opportunity to escape their homelessness by having a big win. Hodgetts and Stolte suggest that the betting shops were judgment-free spaces where homeless people could be accepted, but it sometimes backfired. On one occasion, a homeless individual dropped by a betting shop she frequented to show the owner some drawings she had made:
When I knocked at the door he just turned round to his colleague and said ‘Don’t worry she’s just an old beggar lady’ and he threw some coins at me.
Needless to say this was hurtful and her illusion of normalcy was shattered.
According to Hodgetts and Stolte, their participants would also take holidays from living on the streets. For example, some of the homeless Maori participants would garden in a green space outside of Auckland on traditional land that had been returned to the local Maori people. It was created as a judgment-free space where homeless Maori could reconnect with their culture:
To me it’s very important in keeping and building my inner confidence. Being able to be Maori here is important to my confidence.
Hodgetts and Stolte suggest that through leisure homeless people can repurpose the urban landscape into something that is meaningful, inclusive, enjoyable, and outside of their difficult lives on the streets. The researchers observed that:
In the current epoch of austerity, reduced welfare support and victim-blaming in relation to people living in poverty, it is important to not lose sight of the potential of leisure for re-humanizing people in need.
Rodney Steadman 15 April 2015
Hodgetts D, & Stolte O (2015). Homeless people’s leisure practices within and beyond urban socio-scapes. Urban Studies DOI: 10.1177/0042098015571236