Narratives can be a powerful tool for breaking down biases

Mustapha Sokrat 

Author headshotAccording to Homeless Hub, 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night and 235,000 experience homelessness in a year. Tackling this complex issue requires the efforts of social and community workers, policy makers and career counsellors who can adapt their services to this population.

Work-related experiences and narratives can play a role both in creating the conditions for self-confidence, as well as in an individual’s recovery and resilience.

The 2018 census of homeless people by the Government of Quebec indicates that 11.2% of residents are homeless because of job loss. The same study highlights that 12.2 % of homeless people have an informal job, while 9.4% and 3.3% are self-employed.

To support clients experiencing homelessness, career professionals need to better understand the individual’s unique circumstances and narratives about work.

Personal stories can be a powerful tool for breaking down assumptions and stereotypes about people experiencing insecure housing situations. For instance, at Parc Hamelin in Montreal, I witnessed a community organization using a photovoice exercise to have homeless individuals document their personal stories. Career-related narratives are important to present individuals under another angle. This contribution can be considered as an Artivoicea concept I coined to highlight the role a career counsellor can play in terms of social advocacy and experience sharing with other counsellors and stakeholders.

In this article, I will share my personal experiences with homeless clients through many years of work experience in employment and community organizations. All names were changed to respect confidentiality.

Note: While “unhoused” is becoming an increasingly common term, this article will use “homeless” because that is the prevalent term being used in services in Quebec.

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Nostalgic experience

Sharing job-related experience is often a way to present the self as unique and different from others; this is also true of homeless clients. One person I spoke to emphasized the dangerous nature of his career as a high-rise window cleaner in Montreal. Another client, an elderly man, highlighted his physical strength. He used to drive agricultural machinery at his uncle’s farm.

Jean, another individual I spoke with, talked about his life as a Canadian living in a foreign country, where he had a girlfriend and a house. Now, living unhoused in Canada, he still dreams of going back and starting a business in another continent.

“Sharing job-related experience is often a way to present the self as unique and different from others; this is also true of homeless clients.”

It can be a nostalgic experience for people to share job-related narratives. It helps them connect to an idealized self in the past, when they were young, strong and active. However, reminiscing can also be a springboard to the future. “Because, I was such and such, I can do it again.” One person I worked with, Victor, was a house painter. Sadly, the death of his son jeopardized his family life and he lost everything. But he still remembers his previous experience as a painter. He is planning to get his accreditation in construction as well as his driver’s licence.

Career counsellors can use these narratives to strengthen clients’ self-confidence to trigger career planning. They can also use narratives to assess clients’ skills and help them to get government services.

Adapting services

Homeless clients are often reluctant to use public services for job integration. In my experience, they want to fix the problem when they want and to do it at their own pace. Therefore, they often seek fast solutions, instead of long-term processes. That’s why they prefer integration programs that give them the opportunity to work and get money instead of preparatory courses and meetings. Otherwise, they move on with their own social network, using mouth-to-ear strategies or contacting a previous employer. Networking is often a strategy to get a job.

Clients experiencing homelessness often work for moving companies, or doing snow removal or demolition work, for instance; in general, in the kind of jobs that have high turnover and require labour on demand.

For career counsellors, adapting the pace of their service can be an added value for the attraction and retention of such clients to career counselling or job search programs.

Getting back to a sense of belonging

To live in a shelter as an elderly man is a challenging experience for homeless people. They can be victims of harassment and threats, and they have deal with the shelter’s rules. Take Charles, who is 72 years old and has been using Montreal’s shelters for more than 10 years. After his mother’s death, he lost everything because of his addiction problems. Even construction companies could not hire him because they were threatened to lose their contracts. However, he moved to Montreal and did not give up. Unfortunately, living in a rooming house was not easy because of drug dealers and he lost his room because of his addiction problems. He lost everything and got to a shelter to start building again a new life. He is planning to have a part-time job as a helper in a restaurant and to volunteer in the kitchen of the shelter. Having regular meetings with his social worker brings him relief and a sense of recognition. Another community housing support gave him support to find a lasting shelter.

I also learned about the story of Sebastien, who was chronically homeless for more than 10 years. When his mother passed away, everything fell apart and family members stopped talking to him because of his drug addiction. He did not want to stay in a subsidized apartment, preferring the emergency shelter.

Finally, he got another social housing placement and he is still volunteering in the shelter. He cannot stay home all day doing nothing. He wakes up 4 a.m. and walks half an hour to start preparing the kitchen for day shift workers. He knows every corner in the basement stockroom and he is aware of the breakfast routine. Five days a week, he gives more than six hours. He is proud of the consistency of his contribution and also the recognition he gets from staff members. Because of the turnover, he is more than essential for the daily activities of the centre. He often trains new employees.

Breaking down biases

I believe that work-related counselling can be very helpful for clients dealing with job instability and loss of income. Encouraging homeless clients to share their life and job-related experience can be helpful to start thinking about and planning their careers. I encourage clients to use their active coping skills to move forward and look for better options in terms of housing and career.

Recognizing the agency of homeless individuals starts with awareness of the structural factors that create homelessness. Career counsellors need be able to question their own stereotypes about the work challenges of homeless clients. They must overcome their professional and personal biases to be aware of downstream implications of upstream decisions.

I believe that structural competency is a core skill for employment and career counsellors to get ‘’Les ficelles du métier’’ [tricks of the trade] to help clients facing complex issues and challenges.

Meeting homeless clients where they are can help us disconnect from our preconceptions. Understanding the structural factors and initial triggers for losing one’s home, as well as these individuals’ struggle to find a solution to their daily life problems, is an essential competency for the recognition of their agency and their capacity to build on their strengths.

Mustapha Sokrat has been a Member of the Accrediting Body of Career Counsellors in Quebec since 2011, having worked as a guidance counsellor and community worker in non-for-profit organizations. He was involved in various employability and community programs for more than 10 years.