If your work involves contact with people when they’re homeless, you’ll probably be very familiar with the professionalised term ‘unwise decisions’.
For example, ‘He has mental capacity so has the right to choose to stay homeless – there’s nothing we can do’.
The thinking is good – it is deeply ingrained in health and social work models and recognises that people have a right to do things that are legal, and we can’t interfere just because they make our stats look bad.
A few years ago, there was an excellent training course around mental health issues run by a local provider. One of the speakers was an ‘expert by experience’ – she was still experiencing mental health issues and had previously been homeless and used a number of psychoactive substances – predominantly strong cider, for many years. One thing she said stood out.
‘The cider kept me alive’.
It sounds paradoxical on the face of it, even a little shocking. But in the context of what she was talking about, it was certainly coherent. The alcohol kept the unbearable psychological pain she was experiencing at bay – pain which was leading to repeated suicide attempts, self-harm and extreme risk-taking behaviour. Luckily, she was able to get effective help before the dangerous lifestyle she was leading caused her irreversible harm.
So the understanding of unwise decisions is certainly good, but what if we can take it a stage further? It wasn’t just that she was making an unwise decision to use alcohol, there was actually a hidden wisdom in it – what psychology maestro Alfred Adler would call a ‘private logic’*, however bleak it may have been.
What if a person’s ‘unwise decisions’ whisper something to us that cannot be articulated with words? And what if this understanding might enable us to offer more effective support? Could it possibly be less painful for a person to stay homeless than to run the gauntlet of rogue landlords, bureaucracy and professional services? – to risk being abused, humiliated and stigmatized, and then risk failure, ending up back at square one?
*One of our caseworkers spoke to author Dean Whittington about this idea – see our website for the video – http://www.justus.org.uk/?page_id=187