One of the most instructive exercises we do with group members at Voices From the Street is to ask what would have helped them avoid the life path they’ve been on, lives mostly filled with pain and challenges and want, decades spent on the streets, in shelters or housing that is barely safer than a park bench.
This is after we’ve stressed the importance of each person taking responsibility for bad decisions, and/or bad actions; without that acknowledgement it’s difficult to move forward constructively, it’s part of being an adult to own up to mistakes.
Sometime later, we pose the important question of what society’s responsibility is: those teachers, ministers, police, parents, and agencies that are supposed to protect the innocent and vulnerable, where were they, what were they doing, at the critical time when lives were being broken, twisted, and stunted. We ask this not to excuse the individual, but to show that we are part of a system that has failed too many, and needs, though it doesn’t want, our direct input to do right.
The answers come with tears, rarely anger, mourning a life that could have been, should have been easier, rescues that might have happened, if our social services, our education system, our children’s aid offices were functioning as funders and the general public expect them to.
It is heartbreaking, children left to fathers, ‘uncles’ or step-fathers who beat or sexually abused them, going to schools where these earliest experiences leave them vulnerable to bullying by their peers and to predatory behavior from those who thrive on breaking trust, who pick up the scent of hurt and damage and salivate as if they were sitting down to a feast, a feast provided by those who turned away, who blamed the victim, who failed their duty to protect and defend the defenceless.
Gay children, children of color, poor children, children in the first throws of mental illness, doomed by prejudice, laziness, massive systems failure, those children blame themselves, of course they do, how could they not, when everyone they looked to, before giving up entirely, seems to blame them. They must be bad, deserving of each beating or failure or loss.
These are not the people profiled on agency or government websites, to show how well programs are doing. It would be instructive if they were. “Here is Jane Doe, who we might have helped if we’d been more responsive, more timely, more dedicated to our profession, she wouldn’t have been abandoned to bad men, addiction, prostitution, mental illness or prison. We failed Jane Doe, and we own that failure, and will ensure we correct our mistakes through revised policies, placing people with lived experience on our boards and staff, and most importantly through removing front line workers and executive directors who’ve grown too jaded or self-important to do their jobs. Honoring Jane Doe, all the Jane and John Doe’s, means accepting that they deserve better from us.”
We only catch a glimpse of culpability when the victim dies and an inquest results, nothing requires us to respond to the barely living. Our system routinely fails those most in need, and blames the failure on those they neglected.
Governments, unions, accrediting bodies, those who work in the systems that are so dysfunctional, all conspire to maintain the illusion that we have a strong social safety net, none of these sectors want tackle the bloated, inefficient, ineffective systems that serve only themselves, and those who are least damaged. No wonder ‘the poor will always be with us.’