News and Articles

The Human Right to Belong

December 10, 2021

On International Human Rights Day, what does it mean to find belonging at home, in our local communities, in our parks, our neighbourhoods, and even in our half-vacant downtowns? 

Kim Samuel, the founder of the Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness and fierce advocate for the Right to Belong asserts that “across the world, our leaders should be talking about belonging,” and I agree. Across the world, there’s a massive need for inclusive policy, for coalition building and for social connectedness. However, today I would like to start far smaller than the international sphere and invite you to my pink-clad apartment in London Ontario to conceptualize the right to belong in our home communities.

London, like many cities across Canada, is grappling with an increase in homelessness, mental health issues, a housing crisis, an increasingly toxic drug supply, resulting in rising overdose numbers and deaths linked to weather, illness, and sleeping on the street. In the “43 weeks from January to October of this year, at least 46 people experiencing homelessness died,” a rate of at least one person per week. Working within the HIV/AIDS and harm reduction field, I receive an almost weekly death notice informing me that another community member has passed away. A weekly rotating photo memorial at the main office is a stark reminder of the scale of tragedy – often called the second pandemic – that workers, and street-involved community members are facing. As death rates rise amongst people experiencing homelessness across Canada, street-involved* folks and workers are met with the knowledge that almost every death has been preventable.  These deaths are tied to obvious problems such as the lack of affordable housing, a poisoned drug supply, lack of shelter spaces, disease caused or perpetuated by living on the street, or simply by being forced to sleep on a sidewalk. They can  also be attributed  to both a lack of social connectedness, and to social isolation. If “belonging means rootedness in a place [and]…having a home means having a sanctuary—a place where you can be understood by others,” then my neighbors experiencing homelessness are being robbed of their human right to belong. 

As people are reeling from tremendous loss in their communities, they are also denied the space and opportunity to properly grieve. Coffee shops, malls, even the libraries – places of refuge for those experiencing insecure housing – have changed dramatically since the pandemic began. Free and public spaces are already extremely limited, and as the pandemic rages on, businesses are even more forceful with their no loitering policies. Even free or more lenient places now have time limits, capacity limits, or have abandoned their seating all together, forcing people to constantly be on the move. The messaging to constantly move along reinforces the idea that people living on the street are disposable, and as advocates like DeBlaire note, “that out-of-sight, out-of-mind language is really affecting the mental health of the person within, trying to build themselves back up from the position they’re in,” is even more difficult. 

When people aren’t being forced out of public or private space, they’re often being forced out of their own co-created communities. Across London, tent cities pop up, neighborhoods complain about increases in encampments, and people are dispersed. ‘Dispersed’ does not mean aided or moved into housing; often it just means being told to ‘move along’ or to disappear. 

People experiencing homelessness are often survivors of complex trauma, and this experience of social isolation is in and of itself a re-traumatizing process. Social isolation removes people from community, and refers to a lack of connection to people, place, purpose, and power. It’s evident that street-involved communities are harmed by social isolation, but housed communities are also robbed of the opportunity to connect with all of their neighbours. It is a loss in social connection, understanding, and a detriment to  all of our collective wellbeing. 

Within my current role as a community developer, I’ve gotten to know my street-involved neighbours and some of their stories. We’ve shared laughs, childhood stories, our halloween costumes, and I’ve learned a lot about survival. I’m inspired regularly by the communities that people living on the street build to support one another, to check in on each other, and to fill in the chasms of systemic marginalization, as well as the kindness they extend to me. On cold October nights during a community-based HIV testing event, people invited me to share their candy with them, made sure I was warm enough, and brought me hot chocolate.

I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Queer Events in London on their #NoHungryQueers campaign, a campaign run entirely by self-identified Queer volunteers for other Queer people, that feeds dozens of food insecure LGBTQIA+ people on a weekly basis. I’ve swapped stories with women and discussed sexual health at SafeSpace, a volunteer-run support centre for sex working women. I’ve watched SafeSpace volunteers provide informal counselling, referrals, hot meals, clothes, condoms, harm reduction materials and groceries. I’m inspired by the Encampment Support Network out of Toronto and the fierce anti-eviction work they do for their housing insecure and street-involved neighbours. This is the right to belong in action, at home, in my community. While understanding the right to belong is complex, the soul of it, the unifying practice of finding connection, can be found in every community. 

On International Human Rights Day, I’m inspired by grassroots organizers who are doing the innate work of asserting that people belong, that their needs aren’t their fault, and that they deserve to take up space. If we, like SCSC founder Kim Samuel, understand the right to belong as “a vehicle for enshrining the value of connection: to people, to place, to purpose, and to power,” then we are better poised to invest in our collective futures. 

*Street-Involved: The definition of street-involved varies across different academic disciplines and is quite broad in order to account for a variety of lived experiences.In this article, the term street-involved is used to describe homelessness, people who are chronically couch surfing, people without stable housing, and people who spend the majority of their time on the street. In essence, it is someone who is regularly unsure of where they are going to sleep, and who is experiencing the mental/physical/emotional stressors of chronic underhousing. The use of street-involved is intentional in order to broaden our scope and understanding of who is placed at risk by inadequate housing and broader support services.