My first memory of learning about stigma came early in my life.
A young guy, his face weathered from exposure and the stress of street living, sat on the sidewalk in front of a high-end clothing store.
In his hands was a sign “Broke and homeless, please help.”
My little 10-year-old feet moved hesitantly toward him, and I dropped handfuls of shiny coins into his hand.
My mum held me close as we walked away, “Most people wouldn’t give him money because they’re worried he will spend it on drugs. But that’s ok if he does, he might need them to survive right now,” she whispered.
I turned around to say goodbye before crossing the street and he was looking down at the coins with a smile, gratefulness etched on his face.
At that time in my life, I had yet to meet the people who would open my eyes to a world where barriers are erected between safety, healthcare, housing, and support and those who need it.
I didn’t understand the concepts of oppression, power, and privilege and how they can create obstacles for those who are marginalized in our communities.
Nor could I conceive how a person could be completely isolated and alone with their struggles due to others’ unfair ideas about them.
As I began to learn about each of these issues and recognize them on my own, the more I felt something had to change.
In the community of Trail alone, there are close to 50 people experiencing homelessness, and many struggling with substance use.
In the past year, I have been able to connect with unhoused community members through work with the Trail Community Action Team (CAT) as well as on numerous other occasions.
I listened to stories of violence, hurt, and pain, many of which were brought on by stigma and ignorance.
I heard accounts of beatings and harsh judgments towards the unhoused community, each one again presenting stigma as the main offender.
So when my Career Life Education (CLE) 10 class began a project designed to let us choose the direction of our learning, I decided it was time to do something.
By the end of the six week-long project, eight paintings had been created by art students at JL Crowe and were ready to be hung up in La Nina Shelter.
This project inspired many conversations with classes and teachers about drug use and the correlation with stigma and most importantly created connections.
The students who painted the art pieces took the time to think about how mental health and trauma can impact present circumstances and the effect social connection can have on people who may need more support at this time in their lives.
Teachers and other students were exposed to a side of homelessness they hadn’t necessarily seen before.
They saw how trauma can take a toll on mental health, and how stigma and biases can severely change how someone lives but most importantly reflected on the changes they can make themselves to alleviate some of the pressures homeless communities face.
Now after hanging the paintings and finishing the project, I hope everyone involved will be able to pass on the message that connection truly is the basis of healing.