Street Cats and Social Injustices, Part 1

Ginger Cat (Generic stand-in for Street Cat Bob) from Pexels.com

A little over two years ago, I was browsing around a bookstore when a book cover with a handsome ginger cat and an intriguing title caught my attention. The book not only caught my attention, but kept my attention until 3:30 the following morning. I just could not put the book down until I’d finished reading the story. So what was this amazing story that so captured my attention—and continues to hold my attention?

A Street Cat Called Bob: How One Man and His Cat Found Hope on the Streets, by James Bowen (2012, Hodder Books) is a touching and inspiring story about how the author—who had been in a downward spiral of drug addiction and homelessness and was just starting to turn his life around through a treatment program and sheltered housing—found an injured stray cat hanging around his apartment building and decided to nurse the cat back to health. James Bowen tells the story of the incredible bond and friendship that developed between him and Bob, how they saved each other, and how both his and Bob’s lives have changed for the better—starting with the day that Bob insisted on accompanying James to work and sitting at his feet while James was busking (i.e., working as a street musician) or selling copies of The Big Issue[1] on the streets of London, England. For a quick overview of James and Bob’s story, you can check out one of the many Youtube videos about James and Bob, here.  Another major upward spiral was when the pair caught the attention of a literary agent who then connected James with a writer to help him turn his story into the book.

Bowen has since published two more books and has seen the book turned into a movie that was released in the UK (and will have a limited showing in selected US cities, starting November 18th). The third book about James’ adventures with Bob was released in December, 2014. It’s called A Gift from Bob: How a Street Cat Helped One Man Learn the Meaning of Christmas (2014, Hodder Books). The story recounts the last Christmas season (which was an exceptionally cold winter in England) that James Bowen and his BFF (best feline friend) Bob spent busking and selling copies of The Big Issue on the streets of London, before their first book was published. Struggling to earn enough money keep the gas heating and electricity connected so they could stay warm and enjoy their modest Christmas celebration, Bowen was mentally preparing for the worst case scenario; instead, he ended up being pleasantly surprised and deeply touched by the generosity of many of his regular customers whose gifts of cash (tucked into Christmas cards) amounted to a small windfall that saved the day for James and Bob.

Throughout the stories, James talks about the events in his life that eventually coalesced into a downward spiral and landed him on the streets. He also writes frankly about the challenges of being homeless and a street person, and while he is quick to acknowledge and express gratitude and appreciation for the many generous souls who reached out and connected with him and Bob over the years, he also highlights with stark honesty how people generally either ignored him, told him to “get a real job” when he was busking or selling copies of The Big Issue, or treated him—and homeless individuals in general—with contempt.

Since the strange twist of fate that has shot James Bowen and Bob into the spotlight, Bowen keeps busy with his advocacy work for the causes close to his heart: animal welfare, homelessness, and drug addiction, in addition to attending book signings and other commitments related to promoting the books and the movie. He also has a longer term vision to found a cat cafe that will also serve as an educational centre and will operate like a social enterprise. He successfully raised money through an Indiegogo campaign[2] last year to raise some of the funds for his vision, but is currently experiencing some of the trials and tribulations attached to the process of translating an inspired and benevolent vision into reality[3]. Bowen’s journey highlights not only his resilience and determination, but also how the compassion and enthusiasm of a community of supporters helps to make the world a better place—but that’s another story for another post.

Not all individuals who are homeless or who struggle to make ends meet working as a street entertainer or a vendor for publications such as The Big Issue are as fortunate as Bowen. He is well-aware of this, and he makes good use of his opportunities to publicly advocate for more humane and compassionate responses to homelessness at both the individual and systemic levels. In one of the many interviews he has given since his book became a bestseller, he draws attention to the striking contrast between how he was most often treated by other humans and the unwavering, unconditional acceptance and friendship he has received from his feline companion—a friendship and trust that inspired him to accelerate the process of turning his life around[4].

In another interview (at 5:34 into the video), James Bowen wonders out loud why it is that if cats can give this kind of unconditional love and acceptance, more people can’t do the same for their fellow human beings. In that interview, Bowen speaks with great empathy and conviction when he points out that there is so much that could be done to help homeless individuals, if only people would get past their preconceptions and not turn away from or judge homeless individuals.

It’s a good point, and he is absolutely right. Yet, instead of reaching out—or even just stopping to question their assumptions about why individuals become homeless and what those journeys to the streets must have been like—too many passers-by (and decision makers at all levels of government in some jurisdictions) continue to find it all too easy to blame the victims/survivors and ignore, deride, or otherwise dehumanize individuals whose personal, social and economic disempowerment, and vulnerability are on public display.

Contrary to what some new-agers and many neoconservatives/neoliberals would have us believe, homeless individuals are not homeless by choice. There are a myriad of reasons why people become homeless. Individuals whose lives might have been shattered at a young age by violence, neglect or other traumatic events (a growing body of research is showing that many homeless individuals have trauma histories[5]) are at greater risk of becoming homeless at some point in their lives—often earlier, rather than later in life. Increasingly, in an economy and labour market that seems to be in a perpetual downward spiral, people whose lives have been turned upside down by a job loss or a catastrophe that took a large bite out of their savings have ended up on the streets when they ran out of options—or when an increasingly frayed social safety net failed to catch them before they hit the pavement.

There is a solid body of research evidence[6] to show that the very experience of becoming homeless is a traumatic experience for individuals. Trauma specialists define trauma as a neurological, somatic and psychological injury caused by exposure to an event (or series of events) that is experienced as overwhelmingly frightening and/or a threat to one’s existence and is accompanied by a feeling of helplessness that leads to a “freeze” response as the person feels powerless and unable to either fight or take flight. The profound impact of traumatic stressors (especially when they are ongoing) on key self-regulating systems in the brain, along with many of the other symptoms of traumatic stress, results in a significantly reduced ability to manage stress and emotional responses, problem solve, etc. There is also evidence to suggest that the longer individuals remain homeless, the more likely they are to experience poor physical health, develop mental health challenges, and/or start using various street drugs to self-medicate and escape.

We don’t negatively judge people who are the victims of natural catastrophes, who experience or witness violent events, or who are displaced by armed conflict; rather, we recognize that such individuals have been traumatized and we (as a society) treat those individuals appropriately by giving them the material and psychological resources they need to re-create a sense of safety and stability, to strengthen their resiliency, and help them move forward again in their lives. Yet, when we can only see the end results of (often multiple) trauma exposures or economic setbacks without knowing the equivalent psychological and spiritual struggles that many homeless individuals endured en route to their current circumstances, far too many of us are quick to make negative assumptions and judgments and turn away instead of acknowledging our fellow humans and treating them with decency and compassion.

We can’t always (or may not want to) help out every individual we encounter on the street by giving them some spare change or offering to get them some food, but we can start to be more respectful by checking our presumptions about how the spare change will be used. We could skip the urge to tell someone to “get a real job” instead of busking, and we could help out by purchasing a copy of The Big Issue (in the UK) The Megaphone (in Vancouver), or an equivalent news magazine in other cities. If it’s someone we pass by on a regular basis, we can say hello and ask how they are doing. We could at least make it our business to know where some nearby shelters or services are located so we can say, “Did you know that x, y or z organization is near here, and they provide a, b, or c services.”

There are many actions we can take that would contribute to creating positive change at both the individual and systemic levels—the personal and political levels. Part 2 of this post will focus on both the systemic factors and discrimination that have been contributing to increased levels of homelessness and the criminalization of homelessness. In the mean time, here are just a few actions individuals can take to make a difference at the individual level and make someone’s day a little brighter and warmer over the winter holiday season.

 

  1. As pointed out in the previous paragraphs, showing basic kindness, empathy and respect for a fellow human who is clearly experiencing some challenges in life can make all the difference. A smile and a minute to acknowledge another person costs nothing. Also, if we can afford four-dollar lattes, we can probably afford a cup of coffee (or a couple of dollars) for the person we regularly see sitting on the sidewalk, trying to stay warm and dry.
  2. We can seek out opportunities to volunteer with organizations that provide services for homeless individuals.
  3. We can make a point of learning more about the social and economic factors (the systemic causes) that contribute to and perpetuate homelessness. Then we can engage in well-informed dialogue with our neighbours and community leaders if we see them engaging in the misinformed thinking that gives rise to NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) thinking.
  4. We can choose to spend our money at locally-owned, socially responsible businesses that support social enterprises or other organizations that seek to end the social and economic injustices that result in poverty and homelessness. Conversely we can write to local businesses or business associations to express dissatisfaction with them when they behave in ways that do not consider the well-being of all members of the community.

 

Endnotes

[1]The Big Issue is a newspaper that was set up as a social enterprise in the early 1990s to provide homeless individuals with a hand-up and a means of earning some money to help them get off the street. Vendors are provided with a license to sell the papers and are assigned a “pitch” (territory). The vendors must buy the copies of the paper from the organization, and they resell the papers at a slightly higher price. There is also a related non-profit foundation that provides a variety of support services for the vendors to help them turn their lives around. In Vancouver, there is a similar publication, called The Megaphone, which also includes articles and stories by homeless individuals.

[2]The campaign brought in more than 100% percent of the funds requested in a short space of time, but as anyone who has ever attempted to start up a business—whether for profit or as a social enterprise—knows only too well, the expenses are ongoing.

[3]Made all the more difficult because the up-front support and encouragement for Bowen’s vision was not followed through after the fact, when he needed help with getting the perks out to the crowd-funding campaign contributors (A team of dedicated fans living in London stepped up and made an overwhelming task manageable.) and researching/developing a business plan/model, etc. (My wish for James Bowen is that an amazing team of fans with the skills and connections to support this process would step forward and help out. It takes a caring andcommitted community to bring a vision forward for one of their members. And yes, if there’s something I can do from this side of the Atlantic, I’m happy to help out.)

[4]As an interesting side point, I recently came across a research study (a survey of homeless/street-involved youth in BC) which suggests that homeless and street-involved youth who have pets are less likely to use substances and have slightly better mental health than those who do not have pets For more information about the study, seeSmith, A. Stewart, D., Poon, C., Peled, M., Saewyc, E. & McCreary Centre Society. (2015). Our Communities, Our Youth: The health of homeless and street-involved youth in BC. Vancouver, BC: McCreary Centre Society.

[5]Hopper E.K., Bassuk E.L. & Olivet, J. (2009). Shelter from the Storm: Trauma-informed Care in Homelessness Service Settings. The Open Health Services and Policy Journal, Vol. 2: 131-151.

[6]Ibid.

December 24, 2016 · Susan · 2 Comments
Posted in: Uncategorized

2 Responses

  1. Pam Sourelis - January 2, 2017

    Nicely done, Sue. Thank you for shining a light on this terrible problem. We have a serious problem with homelessness here in the States as well. The blaming, the lack of compassion is a national disgrace.

  2. Susan - January 2, 2017

    It seems a lot of wealthy nations in the global north that “should” have the resources to take care of all their citizens have serious problems with homelessness, and yet putting the funding into affordable housing and all of the social supports that individuals need to turn their lives around is never a funding priority. If that isn’t bad enough, it seems that the response of many municipalities is to criminalize and punish homeless individuals and pass bylaws that also make it against the law to provide food, blankets, etc, to homeless individuals. I’m going to discuss this aspect of homelessness in part 2 of this blog post.

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