Governments, their instruments, not-for-profits and charities are selling ‘resilience’ to the poor and the most vulnerable. There is as if an endlessness of programs and services around resilience building – the asking of the poor, the vulnerable, the homeless to ‘tough it out’. In fact it’s a demanding of the poor to accept their lot because for the majority of them there is next-to-nothing else. Contextually, there is little else. The reality is governments do not spend on improving the lot of our most vulnerable.

The not-for-profit sectors and charities which benefit from government funding keep to whatever is the mainstream methodology – for now it is resilience building. But you know, the majority of people can only adjust their responses to deprivation so far and only for so long.

Social and emotional wellbeing is one thing; it has a holistic quotient whereas resilience building alone is the journey to the betrayal of expectations. Likewise, if social and emotional wellbeing frameworks are hijacked by lazy devolutions into near exclusive resilience building without an uplifting of the social health quotient, then it is a one way journey to a betrayal of expectations. Instead of strengthening people, more damage may occur.

Far too many government instruments and organisations dealing with victims of neglect, abuse, trauma commodify the response to them with ‘resilience’ building – which in the end is no better than a ‘get over it, move on’ expectation. They tap into an significant funding to misspend it on non-tangible and non-outcomes based programs.

I have spent more than two decades working with the poorest, the homeless, with the marginalised. I learned early on that I was going to be restrained from making a difference from within government instruments supposedly dedicated to the cause of helping the victim and marginalised, similarly so with the not-for-profit sector. Of course, I am generalising however despite some meaningful work by many and some spectacular rogue programs and culminations the general rule is little is done to improve the lot of others.

I have always been of the view that there is no greater legacy than to improve the lot of others to the point of changing lives, saving lives. However the imperatives in this supposition are to improve the lot of others, to change lives, not to teach them to be tough only. It is as if we are demanding to not dissent, to not usurp the peace, to maintain a certain stability, to not utter a word so as not to upset ‘civil’ society.

In my own work I have worked outside the restraints of government instruments and the not-for-profit sector.

Melissa Chadburn, a former community worker, wrote in

“The story the campaign told was a story of lost resilience. The narrative they preached was how to get it back. This is a common theme in community work. Over the years the term ‘resilience’ has been applied more and more frequently to people in distressed communities to mean their capacity to bounce back from dysfunction or breakdown. Increasing community resilience becomes a solution to chronic barriers such as poverty, trauma, and class inequity. Dozens of programs that encourage resiliency have been introduced in schools and low-income neighbourhoods all over the world in an effort to help children recover from trauma and also cope better with their day-to-day stresses. It’s poverty amelioration through behavioural change – a behavioural change that asks for utter stability. What the resilience preachers look for is a person to be unchanged in the face of trauma. But I would argue that this is impossible, that people are always changed by trauma, and furthermore, that we ought to be. Rather than shift ourselves to change what is, the foundations that fund these initiatives would be better off addressing the gaps, filling the lacks, changing what isn’t. To me, the story of the families we engaged in south L.A. was never the story of a lack of resilience. It was the story of your electricity getting turned off or your landlord being a slumlord, or your immigration status standing n the way of a good job, or your children graduating from high school with little to no money to pay for college, or  your child joining a gang, or your child suffering from autism.”

Melissa’s insights resonated with me and articulate the rationale behind much of what I have done most of my life but which on occasion has alienated me from various interest groups.

It is a moral abomination as an organisation to accept funds to improve the lot of others but instead to misspend the funds on building a bureaucracy to peddle only ‘consultation’ and ‘resilience’. It is morally wrong to accept a job to merely counsel resilience, to preach resilience to people who actually need help.

We were not put on this earth to betray one another but we do.

Social and emotional wellbeing must be about improving lives, changing lives, building lives, about their access to every opportunity, about their community’s entitlement to a social health quotient equivalent to that of the rest of, the majority of the rest of the nation. We cannot pick and choose who is entitled to equality – by its very meaning equality must belong to all. Inherently, the preaching of resilience as has been occurring now for far too long around the world and has been pernicious in its textbook reach, university readings and into the framework of government departments and the not-for-profit sector. It is the result of a neo-fascist like stance by neo-liberalism to cheat, and not just neglect, the poor and the marginalised.

Twenty years ago, I was tutoring mathematics in homeland communities – others would describe these as remote communities – and I found a number of students did not have electricity at home to do their homework in the evening or did not have a study space because of overcrowding – their families had taken in impoverished and itinerant relatives. These children could not learn, they would be left behind, nor could they afford private tuition. I offered to those who wanted to stay back for two hours with me each day and my classroom would be their study space, or the electricity their parents could no longer afford to pay that had been cut off. This is resilience, helping them find a way to learn, to overcome obstacles, not just telling them to be strong inside themselves but to remain without real hope. I needed to resource that hope.

I have spent twenty years volunteering, working with the homeless and I know first-hand that very little is being done to address the increasing homelessness and very little meaningful relief other than meals and some other basic provisions by some well-meaning charities. This is why I am part of the urge for homeless friendly precincts. Homelessness is on the increase and it is becoming much more vicious in its hardships. Governments – shire, state, federal – are doing less than anytime during the last half century for the homeless.

There are 20,000 children under the age of 12 years on Australian streets. This is a moral abomination. Why? No child should be living on the streets and certainly not in the world’s 12th largest economy and one of the wealthiest nations per capita. Nearly a quarter million Australians are homeless – that is on the streets.

A homeless friendly precinct can be as simple as designated space, a few hundred square metres, with small lockers for storage, showers, laundries, a rest space, a treatment area, maybe even a rostered barber. These precincts should be in every major hub of every city and major town. This is about a sliver of human dignity. This is the least of what we should be doing that is if we want to be a genuinely civil society. Homeless friendly precincts can also be more than what I have described thus far. They can be a number of formerly disused public dwellings incorporating all of the above and also a food hall with a kitchen as opposed to soup and mobile kitchens in parks and other external locations. There is one shire in Perth with 243 vacant dwellings, most of them in the same area – these could be converted into a homeless friendly precinct with various accommodation services, various crisis care, various psychosocial support, various offices to assist people into various life-changing pathways and so on.

We have to raise the consciousness of the wider community – introduce the language of homeless friendly precincts and do the discourse. It is important that we raise the consciousness of people to the needs of the homeless, to what it takes to improve the lot of others, and cultivate the journey to a cultural shift which will help us leverage political will.

I spent several years up to the end of 2009 at Murdoch University, as the general manager of its Student Guild. I also sat on the university’s board of directors for four years and on its peak academic planning body for five years.

I exploited alternative pathway and equity programs to bring into university education many of the homeless I had met. Through Perth’s universities and TAFES I brought through 140 individuals over a number of years who otherwise never would have secured a tertiary education, many of them who were homeless. I will never buy the mantra that the ‘poor and homeless will always be with us’ or the other deplorable mantra ‘they don’t want help’.

They do want help.

The tertiary education experience was empowering for them, that is resilience – this is improving their sense of self, self-worth, their wellbeing.

I found shelter for many; whether a humble abode or shared accommodation. Some remained homeless while at university or TAFE. The tertiary experience was their safe space.

In order to improve the prospect of their retention at university, to improve the prospect of them graduating, I thought outside the box, and implemented initiatives and programs to actually strengthen them – my form of resilience building. In 2004, I founded Students Without Borders, which from its establishment to 2010 became one of Australia’s largest student volunteer programs.

Students Without Borders established scores of programs – all with tangible outcomes, about resourcing the individual – this is an improved form of ‘resilience’ building. We did not preached this or that. Students Without Borders’ flagship program was the 8Ball computer recycling program. Students I had brought out of homeless into university education did not have computers. Furthermore, I found many mature age students at Murdoch did not have computers and/or any computer literacy.

8Ball recycled many thousands of computers in seven years – all of them donated to people and organisations without computers. I began the program by collecting the superseded computers from verges. It began out of my home. I organised for IT students at Murdoch University to repair them. The students received academic merit and the critical experience of helping others in a way that immediately improved the lot of others. This was life-changing stuff.

These superseded computers would have finished up as toxic waste in some rubbish tip. I was surprised by the demand for these refurbished computers right throughout the most affluent jurisdiction in this nation – Western Australia. A northern suburb Parents and Teachers Association asked us for 30 computers for students who did not have one at home and then for their parents who were without them – this improved the social health quotient of the family. We donated the first batch of 30 computers the very next day. We shipped computers to schools, communities and organisations in Uganda, Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, India and Indonesia. 700 recycled computers were sent to Kasese Province, northern Uganda, mostly to their schools and to training organisations. These were their first computers. We sent 350 computers to students in Tanzania who were studying media but had no computers at their institution of learning.

Through Students Without Borders I launched a computer literacy program at Murdoch University. I implemented tutoring programs in most subjects to help along the new students, those off the streets, but the program was open to any student needing tutoring. Students who had recently completed the unit with a minimum Distinction mark, provided the tutoring and were rewarded with academic merit. What I am describing is a village of support to help along others – in a sense a wraparound of services geared to improving the lot of someone, to change lives, not just telling them how to cope with dire circumstance or their predicament.

I often wondered if someone like me, an ordinary person, if I could initiate all this and exploit my position to coalesce genuine assistance, to assist so many people, why not then this same approach but wholesale by well-resourced government instruments, institutions and yes, the not-for-profit sector.

I know of three of those 140 I assisted into university, the majority who have graduated, who completed their PhDs. The myths and stereotypes that the majority of people have swallowed are just not true.

Homeless friendly precincts can be places not just limited to that sliver of human dignity where people can shower and wash their clothes, secure their meagre belongings but also arise as reference points for psychosocial counsellors, various responders, and for education providers to meet with the homeless. It takes a little time, varying from individual to individual, to psychosocially build up their confidence, to bridge to the sense of hope, to build up protective factors to offset the risk factors. Unlike my having to go out to squats and traps, to alleyways and parks to meet those I was helping, and sometimes not finding them there, precincts I describe can be that regular meeting place.

We do not need liberal meritocracy suggesting to the most vulnerable, depleted of resources, that they are either to blame or that this is their lot and that therefore the best they can do is to cop it sweet. Nor should we have an industry of profiteers reaping in the quid off their suffering while not delivering any tangible relief from their suffering.

Melissa Chadburn continued:

“At roundtables, this one woman who developed our particular Theory of Change sat at the head, and she carried with her a sort of dominance. Her rhetoric was accepted as the central rhetoric. Though out time, the rest of us who worked with her stopped believing in our value as organisers. Some of us became passive and stopped believing in the validity of our own experience. We all began speaking in her language: protective factors, asset based organising, personal resilience. We started to absorb this woman’s idea that changing people’s behaviour was the solution to their problems, which meant absorbing the idea that people’s behaviour was the source of their problems. But I knew at the core of me this was false. The problem had never been that I didn’t know the right number to call. It’s a lack of resources that produces a lack of resilience, not the other way around. But the work of the initiative said otherwise. This is what we did: we gathered residents in the community and pointed out what their individual and community assets were. Nothing else. We didn’t provide services, or even find a way to coordinate between the different service providers.”

The poor, the disadvantaged, the marginalised, the homeless already have loads of resilience. My work in suicide prevention has taught me this despite the horrific suicide rates for instance among this nation’s First Peoples, where one in three of all deaths of those aged 20 to 35 will be by suicide. The demand by resilience preachers translates to the insisting of an utter stability of the self but this is impossible where there is no prospect of hope, no prospect of equality in the face of outrageous burdens – as I have already written you can only adjust your ‘behaviour’ only so much and only for so long. I visit prisons and the queues are long and unmet for those wanting to undertakes education, skills training, who want to improve their lot. I have worked with the homeless and with impoverished communities and what they do not need is anymore resilience. What they need are access to resources, opportunity and to take step after step out of the degrading experience of extreme poverty. If we do not genuinely assist people hence we betray them and we perpetuate the poverty, we perpetuate narratives of human misery and suffering, we become the oppressor.


Other reading:

Stop examining the oppressed

Resilience is futile