I was recently invited to be a guest speaker to some people in Queensland Government. Here’s a post based on that speech.
When we were first building Cup From Above I asked myself the question “what is community”? I did some research. In ancient rome when a small village was attacked the families would eventually come together to secure the village. They would build a fence or a wall and fortify their families together. The word for this was “munio”. Literally the word meant to build up, fortify or strengthen. The word referred to the literal construction of the wall, the barrier which was constructed to keep the outside attackers outside and those who belonged, to the community, would be safe inside. There was something more significant being constructed than a fence. It was by collectively coming together in common unity to secure and fortify themselves that they became a COMMUNITY. Hundreds of years later the latin word evolved into “communitas” which meant something like we might say the “spirit of community”. Not to be confused with communism which is a for more modern variation and completely different in practise. Communitas meant the voluntary free will sharing of goods and the collective support of one another. This is well before the times of social welfare. If you were in a crisis situation you were at the mercy of living in a generous community to assist you through hard times.
Preceding Cup From Above I was a social worker for over ten years. I worked with people with disabilities and young blokes who were in and out of prison. I worked with the worst. In that time I was nearly burned alive twice, taken hostage once, I had a knife held to my throat more times than I care to count, I was punched, spat on, whipped and worse. We would put our very lives at risk in a passionately desperate attempt to see their lives turned around. They’d do a stint in juvey, get out, try a job/course/school/program, fail, then reoffend to deliberately get back inside. Time and time again. Their identity was formed as a prisoner. They felt significant in that role. In prison they were someone. They had friends there, people who looked out for them who didn’t judge them and understood them. They had a community that they belonged to.
As support workers we would attempt to help with their reintegration back into mainstream life. But if a business exists to make profit then an employer will always employ someone with the highest level of ability and the cheapest to train into that role. It was near impossible for the guys I looked after to get a job.
I built Cup From Above as an answer to this problem.
Cup From Above exists to champion disadvantaged people, train them with hospitality and interpersonal skills and assist them until they independently find authentic and meaningful sustainable employment. We now also have cafe chaplains that function something like a school chaplain. They run several grass roots programs that alleviate or eliminate poverty. Everyday we feed homeless people, we assist people struggling with addiction, we help homeless people successfully find a home, we donate everything they need to get them back on their feet. Every day volunteers at Cup From Above are helping people through the worst crisis situations in our community.
A few months ago we had a homeless bloke come into the cafe for breakfast who had been sleeping on the street. We’d been supporting him on and off for over a year. He was an ex-con and struggled with mental health issues. He said to me he’d had enough and wanted to commit a crime and go back to prison. He did. It’s now costing us $116,252.50 p.a. to have that home for him in Woodford Prison. We’d made phone calls for him to try and get him into a shelter, supported housing, etc. Not many options exist for men over 18.
I spoke with the team and we were a bit frustrated and disillusioned. We wanted to dig deeper into this issue and see what we could find. We decided to immerse ourselves in homelessness for 7 days and live with our friends on the street. We called it Street Week. The only money we spent was on public transport. We survived only on the free services available to homeless people in Brisbane. We slept in our swags and carried everything with us for that whole week. We spoke to dozens of homeless people and the professionals working with them. We visited several homeless programs everyday and experienced what they had to offer. We learnt a lot about homelessness. Everyone we spoke to had a heart breaking story listing several strikes on the classic list of causes: Drug or other addiction, relationship breakdown, mental health issues, financial emergency, accidental injury, unemployment. Two of these are difficult to overcome… three nearly always sends an individual on to the streets. Nearly everyone unanimously lists these as the causes for homelessness. I’ve since come to disagree with this view. Here’s why…
Before 1980 all studies done on rats and apes testing their proclivity for drug use was conducted with them isolated in a cage. In every instance the misfortunate mammal, when given a choice between water and water laced with heroin, would choose the latter. In a short time would become addicted and developed antisocial behaviours not too dissimilar from the average junkie. It seemed obvious: Drugs make you feel good. Drugs are addictive. Lots of drugs make you a bad person. Drugs are bad. Drugs are the problem.
In 1980 a Canadian psychologist named Bruce Alexander published a study with rats famously known as “Rat Park”. He had an hypothesis that rats would not choose to consume drugs if given a healthy social rat environment. He built a rat paradise. 8.8m2 filled with rat running wheels, a banquet of rat food. There were 16 to 20 rats of both sexes and enough room to, you know… and raise little rats. When given the option of water or water laced with an opiate, even when sweetened, the rats in Rat Park selected plain water over getting on the gear. He even went as far as isolating the rats for nearly 2 months and allowing them to become addicted then placed them back into Rat Park. Once returned to the healthy social environment of Rat Park they would show some signs of addiction such as twitching but when given the option, the junkie rats chose plain water.
I recently read an amazing book by Johann Hari about this called “Chasing the Scream”. Hari says “Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection”.
Addiction isn’t the cause. Disconnection is the cause. Addiction is a symptom of disconnection.
Every one of the top causes for homelessness are intimately related to “disconnection”. Relationship breakdown is a disconnection of a significant connection. Poor mental health can lead to disconnection. Financial emergency if that means loss of a job… that’s a disconnection from colleagues.
I’ve come to believe that homelessness is not a problem. Disconnection is a problem. Homelessness is a severe measurement of disconnection. The cure is reconnection. The cure IS community.
Sure we have a shortage of affordable housing. If we buy houses for homeless people it will not solve the problem. They need homes. The difference between houses and homes is that homes are filled with healthy human connections.
The government can fund programs for people who have poor mental health. And it may help. But what they NEED is healthy human connections in a supportive and loving community.
The problem with this paradigm shift is that it means that “they”, the junkie with the drug problem, is not the problem. We are. It’s our disconnection from them that caused their addiction and it’s our opportunity to resolve this by reconnecting with them.
At Cup From Above we asked ourselves as a team how we can actually do this. It’s daunting to think how can you help someone struggling with addiction. I know first hand how hard it is to love someone on drugs. It’s daunting and it should be because you’re just one person. No individual can be a community. You’re only meant to be part of the solution.
After Street Week we started a program called Street Light. It’s an outpost in our community to deliberately reconnect with homeless people. We have a barbecue in a local park and share a meal with them. In the first few weeks we connected with dozens of homeless people that we hadn’t previously known. All of them were struggling with multiple causes that had led to their current situation. We had five homeless people ask for assistance to find housing. They were welcomed into our community. They got fed. They got free coffee. They laughed with us. They hung out with us at the cafe just like they were one of us-because they are. A nineteen year old volunteer sat down with them and helped them call through dozens of housing options and fill out the forms. All five of them have a home now. But more importantly we’re friends now and they have community and a couple of them are now starting to help out other people.
Community means that if we stand together we are built up, strengthened and fortified. Disconnection is the disease. Community is the cure.