Thursday, 15 December 2016

Women, Men & Children

Protest banner created by residents of St Michael's Gate
Banner created by residents of St Michael's Gate

You must have heard about the disgraceful situation across town at St Michael's Gate in Parnwell. A private company has made available to Peterborough City Council accommodation to house some of our city's homeless people. Sounds like a good idea? It isn't, because the properties concerned are already occupied and to make them available to homeless families the people who currently live in these homes are being evicted.

You have understood this correctly. People are being made homeless to free up housing for homeless people.

It's All Perfectly Legal 

If they can do it in Parnwell, they can do it here or anywhere.

Much has been written about this disgraceful situation in both local and national media. In particular, our Peterborough Telegraph is doing a fantastic job of shining a spotlight on the misery that the newly homeless women, men and children of St Michael's Gate presently face.

Story in the Peterborough Telegraph

Women, Men, Children. A Community. 

I have heard and read of local politicians describing these women, men and children as 'the homeless'. This language is de-humanising. Wittingly or unwittingly, when we start to use 'the homeless' as a collective term for women, men and children we begin to set people apart from ourselves. Very quickly, we get to here:

Click to enlarge
[Text: We believe we had absolutely no option but to enter into a formal lease to occupy these properties because if we didn't the properties would have been leased to another council somewhere else in the UK to use for their own homeless households. The existing households that live in St Michael's Gate would still have been evicted whether or not this council entered into a lease agreement, and we would have seen households from another council housed in Peterborough. Demands on services such as education, social care and health would have increased at a time when we are already working hard to manage that demand, and a proportion of these new households would undoubtedly seek to permanently settle in Peterborough reducing the availability of housing for our own households.]

The text you see above is an excerpt from a letter from Peterborough City Council to the Local Government Association, calling for local councils to work together so that the situation that has arisen at St Michael's Gate cannot happen again. The intent is laudable. The language is deplorable.


Brilliant people of Orton Waterville ward, would you agree that 'homeless households' is an oxymoron? How can a person be both homeless and have a house at the same time?

The phrase the city council is desperate to avoid using is 'homeless women, men and children'.

'Homeless women, men and children' has an emotional resonance. It's a phrase that can put a lump in your throat. It makes me think of 'humanity' and 'caring'. 'Homeless households' on the other hand, is clinical. It creates distance between 'them' and 'us'. It makes me think of the bricks and mortar, rather than the loving community of friends and families that is the beating heart of St Michael's Gate.

And do you know, that's exactly what it's supposed to do.

Mind Your Language

We use language to distance ourselves from emotional discomfort. To dissociate from it. Our use of language can change the way we think and feel and it can also change the way other people think and feel. It is that powerful.

Sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes, it is helpful to use language to distance ourselves emotionally when we need to deliver bad news or when we are in a professional or formal situation, such as a job interview. However, when it comes to the wellbeing of the women, men and children who find themselves facing eviction just before Christmas through no fault of their own, dispassionate, dissociating language enables people in power to inflict great harm and injustice when they otherwise might be more compassionate.

Passion and Compassion

This evening, at a meeting of the full Peterborough City Council, St Michael's Gate resident and campaigner Jelana Stevic made what Joel Lamy, reporter with the Peterborough Telegraph described as 'a hugely passionate speech'. It is with regret that this passion will be sieved and strained through the medium of the council chamber until all humanity is lost.

This is human suffering that has come to pass via policies and procedures that de-humanise people. It is very easy to make decisions that affect the well-being of women, men and children when you use language that removes their humanity.

Let's stop doing this. Let's stop de-humanising people. Let's create policies and pass laws that protect people and help them to feel secure. And let's always put people are the heart of our decisions and take greater care with our language.

Your beliefs become your thoughts
Your thoughts become your words
Your words become your actions
Your actions become your habits
Your habits become your values
Your values become your destiny 

And so it is for the women, men and children of St Michael's Gate.

p.s. On reading this post, a local Green Party supporter reminded me of George Orwell's book 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' and Orwell's fictional 'doublespeak' language Newspeak.

Please support Action for St Michael's Gate on Facebook.

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