Names Can Hurt – Homelessness and Poverty in London

Our attitudes to things change over time. We used to call people of different skin colour and nationality really horrible names, we used to think women couldn’t vote and should be thought of as property, and we used to subscribe to caning as a method of school discipline for our children. While there are still vestiges of this kind of name calling, women bashing, and frankly child abuse we nevertheless evolve as we learn. But it seems some outmoded ways of thinking are still around.

I came across an article from London Business Magazine yesterday and frankly was deeply troubled by one line. The opinion piece, written by Jim Chapman, was speaking about our downtown and his thoughts on it. Fair enough. Mr.Chapman has a long history of commenting on London business issues through his work for Schmuel Farhi and his work as a writer and broadcaster.  But one little part stuck out in this commentary that needs addressing. In the article Mr.Chapman says “Shoppers who realized they had a better selection and nicer climate in malls took most of the rest of its business with them to the suburbs, leaving the streets populated with beggars, bums, and, as the cops would say, “the usual suspects”.”

I don’t know about Mr. Chapman, whom I am sure is concerned through his work for Mr. Farhi and personally for the downtown in London, but I tend to think calling those that are vulnerable “bums and beggars” is not the way to speak of human beings with serious issues of homelessness, poverty, mental health, and addictions. It’s an outdated way of thinking as is the way we used to speak, and some still do, about race, religion, sexual identity, that need s to change.

I called the editor of London Business Magazine to share my concerns and as always Gord Delamont thoughtfully heard me out. I shared that i was troubled that this was a terrible way to think of other human beings with serious issues and that it was not something I was expecting to see in the lobbies of our great London businesses. I also shared that this reflected badly on us as a community to have these kinds of words in our leading business publication. Gord heard everything I had to say, was thoughtful in his response, and I am grateful for that.

The issues of poverty, homelessness, addictions, and mental health are complex for those that are effected by them and the road to recovery and a healthy life can be long. As a father of a child with a serious mental illness I have lived some of this path. But to call the most vulnerable in our community bums and beggars is damaging to our understanding of those with these issues and illnesses AND damaging to the community as a whole. While I am sure Mr.Chapman has worked on a number of charitable causes over the many years he has worked in London, these few words are at best insensitive and at worst callous. I hope he corrects this way of labeling the most vulnerable amounts us.

I am a huge champion for the downtown and believe in its renewal and the work of both our Council and Downtown Business Association completely. I am also sympathetic to business owners who must deal with our collective inadequacies in helping those who live lives of shocking poverty. They are trying to run business that serve the community and work very hard day in day out do that. But while many have evolved their thinking on mental health, addictions, poverty, and homelessness some have not. It is up to those of us with the ability to speak up and correct these woefully inadequate labels splashed on our fellow Londoners and to help evolve old and outdated attitudes. These are not the attitudes, I believe, that reflect London and should not be reflected in our leading business magazine.

In the end we are what we set out to be. If we want to be a community of wellness, inclusiveness, and compassion then this should be reflected in our actions and our words. The most vulnerable did not set out to be homeless, mentally ill, addicted, or living in poverty. But they are there now and a part of our collective responsibly is not to denigrate them even further than the circumstances of their current situation. Understanding and compassion are a part of the way forward as is increased help for those that need it. If we set out to be that kind of community then thats what we will be. A city of compassion.

Full disclosure  – my employer, Emerging Leaders, hosts an event with London Business Magazine – Top 20 Under 20, and I sit on the boards of The London -Middlesex Housing Corporation Board, the Board of Women’s Community House, and the Board of the London Poverty Research Centre

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