How can Homelessness be understood through the Restorative Justice approach?
Homelessness and its complexities
The social phenomenon of homelessness is a complex one to address since it relates to many different fields and requires a wholistic response across health, housing, and social services. Individuals who are experiencing homelessness have been failed by society and its institutions, since they have fallen through the cracks of a system that hasn’t been able to provide the adequate support for them. Far from simply manifesting a lack of stable housing, homelessness usually results from an overlap of multiple disadvantages, such as mental health problems, drug addiction, trauma and abuse or criminal offences history. This phenomenon is usually referred to as tri-morbidity, meaning a concurrence of psychiatric conditions, poor physical health, and substance abuse.
Another relevant aspect for understanding the complexity of homelessness is the ostracization and isolation from the broader community, mainly caused by stigma and criminalization. Due to the very nature of homelessness and the difficulties resulting from it, many individuals get stuck in a cycle where their very existence becomes inherently illegal. This can be exemplified by legislation restricting rough sleeping in public spaces such as parks or subway stations. The main consequence of these policies is the removal of individuals from their usual location and support networks, which prevents them from accessing services that may offer support and further deepens the detachment from their communities.
All these factors combined with the unstable and hostile living environment tend to make it harder for individuals to maintain strong, positive relationships, eventually causing them to withdraw and become isolated from their families, friends, and community. Moreover, the social stigma around homeless people further strengthens their ostracization, to the point where they become invisible to the eyes of the community.
Restorative Justice: Reconnecting with the community
Reconnecting with the community and restoring the sense of belonging and dignity is an essential part of the recovery process from homelessness. It is crucial that individuals link with services that can provide assistance, so that they can start their wellbeing journey and properly address the difficulties they are facing. In order to achieve cohesive and proactive communities, one could turn to Restorative Justice for enhancing empathy and understanding, restoring broken relationships, and building strong communities as a form of conflict prevention.
“Restorative practices is an emerging social science that studies how to strengthen relationships between individuals as well as social connections within communities.”
“For humans, the need to belong is nearly as strong a motivator as the need for food and shelter. Deprivation of meaningful relationships is as painful as hunger or exposure to the elements” (Baile, 2019).
Restorative practices such as Mediation, Healing Circles, Group Conferencing, or Community Restorative Boards, give an opportunity for homeless people to come together with the affected parties and other community members to discuss a particular incident. Such approach focuses on establishing good communication, enhancing understanding, and repairing the harm done. Some of the positive effects of these practices are that homeless people are given a voice and are being heard by members of the community. Moreover, they are empowered to exercise agency on matters that relate to them, which contributes to restoring their sense of dignity, respect and belonging.
Furthermore, the emphasis of Restorative Justice on repairing harm can also be beneficial for the recovery process of homeless persons. Their life situations tend to be really complex and difficult, which usually leaves them with a feeling hopelessness. Being able to restore and repair a particular incident can give them a sense of self-agency and hope, encouraging them to move forward in their own recovery journey.
Restorative Justice in practice
Restorative Justice practices can be applied in the context of homelessness in a variety of ways. Generally, they have been incorporated in shelters and supported accommodations as a method of conflict resolution. Due to the multiple disadvantages that homeless people experience, as previously explored, it is common for conflicts to arise in shelters where many people cohabit. Traditionally, conflicts arising from drug consumption or conflictive behaviour used to be dealt with some form of punishment such as expulsion from the centre.
However, these methods fail to recognize the individual’s needs and address the underlying issues that might be causing such behaviour.
Instead, restorative practices such as Mediation or Group Conferencing offer an opportunity for all parties involved in a conflict to discuss how the incident made them feel and what their needs are in order to heal. By asking questions such as: “What were you thinking about at the time?”, “Who has been affected and in what way”, “What’s been the hardest thing for you?” and “What needs to happen in order to make things right?”, a space is created where the needs of the individuals are addressed, and compassion and understanding is fostered. Moreover, the parties also engage in compromises in order to repair the harm and prevent future conflicts from arising.
An example of a successful application of restorative practices was detailed by Laura Mirsky in a report on The Stockholm City Mission (Mirsky, 2004). Such organization is running the Bostället Homeless halfway house, in which restorative practices are commonly used to engage clients in addressing their own behaviour problems, instead of using staff-imposed punishments. The described incident referred to a schizophrenic woman and resident of the shelter who had slapped a staff member on the face. Any form of violence was not tolerated in the centre, and thus the woman would have had to be expelled. However, by using the alternative method of Group Conferencing, all parties were able to engage in a discussion on the incident. Thanks to such process, the staff members were able to have better insights into the woman’s schizophrenic world and understand her struggles better. Therefore, they were able to establish a form of conduct that would provide more adequate support for the woman, as well as prevent future violent incidents from occurring again.
Another example of a case where restorative practices were successful was explained by Dr Lindsey Pointer in her case study “How Does Restorative Justice Interact with Homelessness and Mental Illness?” (Pointer, 2016). Such case concerned a 64-year-old homeless man (Joseph) who accidentally caused a fire with a makeshift stove he was using to cook with. The neighbours and general community were affected by such incident since they believed the fire could have caused damage to their homes and risked their lives. As an alternative to the criminal justice system, the case was referred to Restorative Justice, and a Group Conference was held with Joseph, some neighbours, and police representatives. As reparation for the harm committed, it was agreed that Joseph would attend a centre where mental health issues were addressed through creativity and art. As part of his reparation contract, he would have to create posters with information about fire safety, in particular on cooking methods commonly used by homeless persons. The conference was successful since Joseph was given an opportunity to repair the broken relationships with his neighbours, as well as becoming more integrated within the community and being linked with adequate support services.
· McDonagh, T. (2011). Tackling homelessness and exclusion: Understanding complex lives. Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
· Hewett & Halligan. (2010). Homelessness is a healthcare issue. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 103(8), 306-307. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1258/jrsm.2010.10k028.
· Novac, S. et al. (2006). Justice and Injustice: Homelessness, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System. Centre for Urban & Community Studies University of Toronto. https://www.deslibris.ca/ID/226204.
· Baile, J. W. (2019). A Science of Human Dignity: Belonging, Voice and Agency as Universal Human Needs. IIPR Presidential Paper Series, 1, 1-16. https://www.iirp.edu/images/pdf/A_Science_of_Human_Dignity_2020-10-20.pdf.
· Mirsky, L. (2004). Restorative Practices with Sweden’s Homeless: The Stockholm City Mission. International Institute for Restorative Practices, 1, 1-5. http://www.iirp.edu/pdf/stockholm.pdf.
· Costello, B., Wachtel, J., & Wachtel, T. (2009). The restorative practices handbook for teachers, disciplinarians and administrators. International Institute for Restorative Practices.
· Pointer, L. (2016, February 18). How Does Restorative Justice Interact with Homelessness and Mental Illness?. https://lindseypointer.com/2016/02/18/how-does-restorative-justice-interact-with-homelessness-and-mental-illness/ McDonagh, T. (2011). Tackling homelessness and exclusion: Understanding complex lives. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Hewett, N. & Halligan, A. (2010). Homelessness is a healthcare issue. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 103(8), 306-307. Novac, S. et al. (2006). Justice and Injustice: Homelessness, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System. Centre for Urban & Community Studies University of Toronto.  Baile, J. W. (2019). A Science of Human Dignity: Belonging, Voice and Agency as Universal Human Needs. IIPR Presidential Paper Series, 1, 1-16. Ibid.  Mirsky, L. (2004). Restorative Practices with Sweden’s Homeless: The Stockholm City Mission. International Institute for Restorative Practices, 1, 1-5.  Ibid.  Costello, B. et al (2009). The restorative practices handbook for teachers, disciplinarians and administrators. International Institute for Restorative Practices. [p. 16]. Mirsky (n6). Ibid.  Pointer, L. (2016, February 18). How Does Restorative Justice Interact with Homelessness and Mental Illness?. Ibid.