oldIf we asked you to think about housing for the homeless, what kinds of images would come to mind?

Almost certainly, you’d find yourself imagining some typical stereotypes. Long, disheveled beards. Dirty, tattered clothing. Bottle picking. Drug and alcohol using. Perhaps suffering from some sort of mental health issue.

Without even trying, your mind’s eye would immediately begin picking out markers that distinguish our supportive housing clients from any other person you’d see walking down the street. And without knowing much else, you probably couldn’t help but think of the “typical homeless person” you’d see in your travels through the city’s downtown core.

It’s not that we could blame you. Our society – everything from television and film, to advertising, news clips and photography – is built on a platform of symbols and pattern recognition. That’s why many myths and misconceptions about homelessness carry so much weight and longevity. We are conditioned to register the instances that feed into our prejudices and discount those that do not.

At best, it tricks you into believing it’s possible to know someone’s story through visual cues alone. Though it’s not just the homeless we do that to, they most certainly feel the heaviest weight of it.

At worst, it causes you to see various groups of human beings as distinct, different, and other. And in the case of the homeless, that means sitting on the lowest rung of our social ladder, worthy of your presumptions and judgment.

Almost certainly, you’d find yourself imagining some typical stereotypes. Long, disheveled beards. Dirty, tattered clothing. Bottle picking. Drug and alcohol using. Perhaps suffering from some sort of mental health issue.

The problem, however, is there is really no such thing as the typical homeless person.

Obviously, some clients who use the services of the Calgary Drop-In Centre have long beards. But most do not. Some have personal hygiene issues. Though the majority value their daily shower and do their laundry every week. Some struggle with addiction and mental health issues. Many do not; and many have overcome those obstacles to now live happy and healthy lives.

The people we serve are as varied and diverse as a high school classroom, with a dozen exceptions for every one that follows the rule.

So what does that mean for the typical housing client at our Sundial or Bridgeland Manor apartments? Without falling into the trap of generalizing, the best description we can offer is they are much like your parents or grandparents.

The majority of them are senior citizens. Loving, caring and generous people. They enjoy reminiscing and telling stories about the good old days. They like collecting trinkets that take them back to a simpler time in their lives. They can be stubborn and idealistic, and set in their ways. But they also they take pride in themselves, their neighbours and the community they live in.

The problem, however, is there is really no such thing as the typical homeless person.

The clients who reside in our supportive housing buildings may have a more sordid history than most. But they have also spent more time rebuilding and reshaping themselves than most of us would spend over a hundred lifetimes.

They cook, they clean, they share resources, and they support one another. Some work, most volunteer, and all of them actively take part in creating their own success.

If you want to think about housing for the homeless, perhaps the most accurate visualization you can muster is to remove the word homeless and replace it with human.