It’s not often you’d expect a heavy engineering research association to talk homelessness to their membership. But, having recently discovered that three homeless people were sleeping in the undercover area at the back of HERA House – here we are.
The discovery led to some really challenging discussions amongst HERA House tenants on how to best deal with this.
And as diversity is a communication focus for HERA in February, we thought it worth sharing some of our early learnings.
The way we talk about homelessness
Homelessness is a serious issue in Auckland and a hot topic amongst Manukau businesses. In the homeless count last year, it was concluded that there were around 800 people sleeping without shelter in Auckland.
It’s not often that the homeless are referenced in a positive way. In fact, at the end of last year Business Manukau stated: “Most of our callouts are for antisocial behaviour, aggressive behaviour, threats, and refusal to leave the property from the twenty plus beggars who present themselves as the homeless in order to obtain cash.”
HERA House is part of the Manukau business community. And it is a community with considerable difference on this issue.
Language is important and needs to be fair and factual. There are some genuine people in need. Even the people who have homes but still beg are living unenviable lives. We need to make sure they aren’t vilified and that we are all acting in ways that give better support to them. We should be educated to give financial support to the agencies supporting people in need, versus homeless individuals – and food instead of cash to individuals.
And this is what we grappled with when we realised the homelessness problem in Manukau was, in fact, “close to home”.
A diversity challenge we hadn’t considered
We all agreed that the safety and wellbeing of our staff was our number one priority.
What we struggled with was what was our role in addressing the safety and wellbeing of the homeless people involved.
We had stories of how we had given homeless people food or transport but none of us knew what the process would be for these people to access ongoing services and emergency housing.
We also wrestled with some of the language, attitudes and inherent assumptions being applied to these people as we tried to come to a final decision on how to address this situation.
It is a taboo topic and probably our first responses were not well considered. This is understandable, as it’s a topic that we usually don’t give much attention to. Certainly, it was not one that we had previously identified as a specific hazard.
We didn’t have considered thoughts. We didn’t have great awareness of what the experience was like from the other perspective. And we didn’t have knowledge about how to make the situation a fair one. We just started making decisions based on our view of the experience.
Sound familiar? These are common issues that come up when there is a lack of diversity. Here, we were faced with an experience of homelessness. And this diversity of experience isn’t commonplace within our workplace.
We talk about white male privilege but the basic privilege of being able to sleep securely is not often thought about.
So what to do?
Addressing our responsibilities
From a health and safety perspective, we’ll be installing security cameras that have better viewing of the back area of the building. And, we’ve advised all staff not to enter the building in the morning from the rear door unless they’ve first checked that there aren’t unauthorised people there. We’ve also implemented tighter door security measures, and have started to think about means to deter unauthorised visitors in the first place, such as fencing.
In terms of our corporate social responsibility, we’ve left a note to open up the communication lines between ourselves and these particular unauthorised visitors. We’ve made them aware that we know they’re sleeping on site, but also that we have concerns around our staff safety and their safety too. We’ve taken this opportunity to also advise them of the process to get assistance from the nearest WINZ and Salvation Army support centres, and that we’d be willing to support them in this process if needed. We don’t want to ignore their safety and wellbeing.
They haven’t come back and we’ll need to re-convene about next steps if they do.
We’ve also realised that we need to investigate ways that we can better support this part of our community. For example, maybe we can support the service providers better. We actually have one located right next to us, after all!
Addressing our diversity dissonance
This will require further work, discussion and information. We aren’t in harmony – and it is clear that there are a range of negative assumptions that we make about homeless people. It’s also clear that this isn’t an aspect of diversity that we’ve really considered in great detail. This was remiss of us, given the location of our office and the fact we see homelessness regularly in our immediate vicinity.
This has certainly raised our awareness of how diversity is often considered in terms of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and thought diversity. Whereas, diversity of experience in terms of homelessness is not something we have given a lot of thought to and to be honest, we’re still trying to figure out. This has been a diversity blindspot and we were caught out unprepared.
Diversity is a challenge and requires empathy. It also requires discussion and seems to inevitably involve the discomfort of initial dissonance. Hopefully and wilfully, this will lead to a greater level of harmony.
On this specific issue, we’ve learnt that there is a formal process to access support services. Individuals can help by supporting the agencies who assist homeless. It’s also an issue that needs to be discussed more in the mainstream as clearly, it is not something many of us are very knowledgeable about. We also can’t ignore that it’s an issue that can have business impacts.
Like any aspect of diversity, it’s useful to see things from the other person’s perspective. In our case, it was important to consider if there was a way for the business imperative for health and safety to remain paramount while also finding room for compassion and empathy.
Can business imperatives and compassion co-exist?
We hope so, but know first hand the dissonance that comes with that.