What Is a Community?
I used to live in a low-rise condo in a Vancouver suburb. Less than 50 units in the building; you’d be hard pressed to get a nod of the head in the hallway, much less of a Hello. I was surrounded by people and I knew none of them. (Mind you, I did nothing to improve the situation. I was definitely part of the problem.)
It got me thinking about community. What do you need to build one? That sense of belonging, that you serve a purpose, that you’re needed and you need others. If you’re a fan of McMillan & Chavis, boy do they have a read for you. I’ll counter with a more succinct definition:
“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry taught many a lesson in Le Petit Prince, but this was a big one. When you need someone, and they need you – this sense of belonging fills a basic human need we often refer to as community.
What role does a sense of community have on mental well-being? How have communities among homeless people bloomed and what can we learn from the findings?
Sense of Community and Mental Health
The link between mental well-being and social and community factors is well documented. Connecting with community groups can prevent and reduce feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression. A strong sense of community has also been observed to yield physical health benefits.
A Canadian study correlated mental health with a sense of community. Respondents reporting a mental or substance-use disorder were asked to assess their own mental health. Self-rated mental health results were predictably diverse: poor or fair (38.1%), good (33.7%), and very good or excellent (28.2%). Things got interesting when the findings correlated with respondents’ self-rated sense of community. A positive relationship was observed between those with a strong sense of community and very good or excellent mental health. The inverse also held true. Individuals with little to no sense of belonging to a greater community tended to assess themselves lower when it came to mental well-being.
New York City was home to a similar study during the late 80s. The 159 participants, all having suffered some degree of mental illness, were found to have benefited greatly after spending time in community residences.
Of course it did! When we feel like we belong, when we have a sense of membership, and as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s fox said, when we “need each other” – that sense of community serves a basic human need. We become contributors to society. We rely on others and they rely on us. Knowing that others are cheering us on helps us reach our finish line. As Psychology Today observes, “feeling that we belong helps us see value in life and helps us cope with intensely painful emotions.” When we realize how we connect to the whole, we realize that we’re not alone. We gain comfort and become more stable when we fortify these community connections.
Communities in Bloom
The New York study was playing with a stacked deck. Study respondents were living government-funded residences. So, what happens when homeless communities are left to fend for themselves?
Let’s stay in New York City where homelessness is on the rise. An increasing number are choosing to live on the streets rather than shelters. Like Moustafa, a 48-year-old mechanic. Moustafa lost his house and shop when a landlord raised his rent. He now lives on the streets of Brooklyn in a community of nearly a dozen homeless mechanics. They live out of their vehicles and try to get work when they can. In the summer, he can earn $600 in a good week. He makes next to nothing during the rainy months. A strong sense of community exists among the mechanics. When fellow mechanics ask for help, Moustafa obliges. He has also trained two other men to be mechanics. They all work for themselves, but they help each other out, too.
A man in Washington, D.C. (who preferred to remain nameless) was in and out of shelters for several years. During an NPR interview, he recounts the story of how his shoes were stolen while sleeping in a shelter one night. Three people in the shelter offered to give him a pair of shoes after learning about the theft. But he’s skeptical about life in shelters. “There is a sense of community there. I don’t want to give the impression that everyone in the shelter is bad. But you have a lot of people with a lot of problems, and so when you cram them all together, you just have one big problem. That’s why I’m a big fan of smaller, scattered-sized shelters, where people can get more focus on what they need to get help.”
Tent Cities Are Popping Up All Over North America
Carol, a 49-year-old living in F-Street Camp in Fresno, comments on how she feels about her tent city:
“I camp here because it’s the only way we can stay with my family. My social worker wanted me to go into the shelter, but if I did that I’d have to give up my dog who I’ve had for seven years, and me and my boyfriend would have to stay at different places. These guys are all I got.”
Tony, 37, comments on the redeeming factors of tent cities this way:
“It may only be a tent, but this is the only privacy I can afford… When I zip up my tent, I can read, watch a movie, do whatever. I can store my things here, so I don’t have to lug around a cart of stuff all day, and I know it’s safe. It’s my last piece of space.”
Many of those dwelling in tent cities echo these sentiments. They refer to fellow campers as their family. In fact, some claim life in a tent city was the first time they ever lived anywhere with a sense of community.
It’s heartening to see this strong sense of community. But at the same time, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. A sense of belonging fills a basic human need and no one sector of society has a monopoly on it.
One Brick at a Time
What do we need to build a community? A sense of belonging. Membership. Seeing the connection between ourselves and the whole. Needing each other.
The link between health and a strong sense of community is undeniable. And when it comes to assisting victims of homelessness, this need for membership should inform development of ongoing strategies. Acknowledging and nurturing it, such as what a program in Austin, Texas, is doing, needs to be just as vital as attending to physical health and housing needs.
For the public, hearing stories of community among homeless individuals is vital. Humanizing marginalized members of society turns them into us. As a fox once said, ‘we’ll need each other.’ And who doesn’t want to help one of their own?