Interview With DeBorah Gilbert White On Homelessness

Talking with DeBorah Gilbert White, founder of HerStory Ensemble: an American NGO, which supports the empowerment of women who’ve experienced homelessness, or are at the risk of homelessness. HerStory Ensemble promotes education, awareness, economic development, and advocacy to end homelessness. In this exclusive interview with DeBorah Gilbert White, we talked about critical issues on homelessness in America, the psychosocial, and the involvement of civil society in helping people identified as homeless find shelter, as well as collaborating with relevant government agencies to curbing the situation by providing a permanent solution.

DeBorah Gilbert White PhD. is a diversity and inclusion specialist and the founder and coordinator of HerStory Ensemble. She’s very active and instrumental in helping people who’ve experienced homelessness, as much as in the community empowerment field. DeBorah is the associate faculty at the University of Phoenix.

Q: Could you give us concrete and statistical references of people identified as homeless in America. What psychological condition was commonly diagnosed with these people?

People identified as homeless in the United States are a diverse demographic and come to the experience due to various reasons. Most have lost of income, many are fleeing domestic violence, some are aging out of the foster care system, and youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) are kicked out of housing due to sexual orientation. The people who are living with mental or physical disability and  substance abuse make up a small percentage (about 5%) of the homeless. However, they are often the most vulnerable and the ones who are the most visible. In the United States we are working to expand the narrative and understanding about homelessness to be that people are homeless because they do not have housing. This moves us away from perpetuating the stereotypes and stigma that the majority of people experiencing homelessness are mentally ill or drug addicted.  

Q: How far has civil society and the mental health space help the homeless in [re-]writing a new social identity about themselves, especially that there’s the much talked social discrimination associated with living as a homeless?

Being identified as homeless is a stigmatized identity in U.S. culture. People who are identified as homeless are often thought to be failures, helpless, and non-contributing members to society. The state of being homeless is often criminalized. This occurs when people must do things to survive in public places and spaces because they have no other place to go. The criminalization takes the form of fines, tickets, citations, and arrest for sitting, eating, sleeping, standing, and other human functions. This impacts primarily those experiencing street homelessness.

In many cities across the U.S. community and national, organizations are working to provide social services with housing.  This effort supports those who may be in recovery or need to be on medications to address mental illness. Many communities are pushing for more affordable and low-income housing because there is a lack of this type of housing. Along with this is a push for an increase in the minimum wage and call for a livable wage, so that people can pay rent.  Today, there is no place in the U.S. where people can pay rent for a two bedroom apartment earning the current minimum wage.   

There are two national campaigns aimed at ending discrimination against people identified as homeless, sponsored by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. They are the “Housing Nit Handcuffs” Campaign and the “I Ask for Help Because. . .” Campaign.

Q: Could you share a case in point, or a scenario were some individuals were offered help in the form of housing, hostels, or transient camps? If so, has it positively affected their psychological health?

No, I do not work with direct services.  My work is primarily homeless prevention, legislation, and policies.

Q: Is it right to say that most people identified as homeless take recourse on drugs, and if accessible, unhealthy therapy to ease the pain of public shame, anxiety, chronic stress, and/or depression?

Most people identified as homeless are not drug addicted.  Many professionals see those who are living with a drug addiction, using drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism to numb physical, emotional, or psychological pain.  

Q: Could there be a connection between their mental health condition(s) and psychosocial factors like loneliness, marital status, and/or social disruption? If so, should there be other social programs for them in which to deal with this issue?

I believe there is a connection between mental health and psychosocial factors.  Many clinicians will point to the impact of traumatic life experiences, such as homelessness as a factor in emotional and mental health concerns for children and adults without housing.

Francis Annagu is a Nigerian writer, poet, and documentary photographer. Some of his literature and photo stories are published in Contrarian, London Grip, Photographic Museum of Humanity, Wotisart, Potomac Journal, Crannog Magazine, Hooves, Save Africa Anthology, and elsewhere.

Join the conversation