Invisible People: a project and an opportunity to bring the topic of homelessness forward*
Hara Stefanidi is an English Language and Literature Graduate with a keen interest in Art, Women Studies and Communication. She has participated in significant projects, on the internalization of self hatred and the act of resistance and on visual cultural representations, among others. She has worked as a Communications Team member, writing and editing content for NGOs in social platforms. She is currently into Public Relations for social advocacy and ethical responsibility.
Here she reports on the "Famous People's Day", a social project ran by the Greek street paper, Shedia For her feature article she interviews people involved in the project and the psychologist and social entrepreneur Mrs. Despoina Limniotaki.
It was around 12:00 pm on a typical Saturday morning when Mr. Mamalakis would become invisible, even though he was not yet aware of it.
Upon wearing the red vest, people not only stopped recognizing him as the famous Greek cook that he is, but they stopped looking at him altogether. He was startled. Mr. Mihalis Samolis burst and dissolved into laughter; “It was really engaging to see Mr. Mamalakis disappear. He could not comprehend the reason behind his newborn invisibility, despite my previous advice and warnings.” Locking his gaze into my eyes, Mr. Mihalis continued with a heavy voice, “The people who really wish to see you, will see you. Those who refuse to see you, simply won’t and will just pass you by; most people do not see me.”
Mr. Mamalakis was part of “Famous People’s Day”, a social project run by the first and single Greek street paper, Shedia. During the project, famous people wear the characteristic red vest -or the “invisibility cloak”- of the vendors and pursue in selling the street paper, like homeless people working as vendors at the paper do on a daily basis.
Mr. Mihalis is a homeless person that works in Shedia as a vendor and as a guide to the “Invisible Tours”- yet another social project Shedia organizes. Through these social initiatives, Shedia’s aim is to initiate a wider discussion around invisibility and the devastating psychological implications for homeless people, in order to help them escape from it.
Read the article and more from Hara's blog here
Here is the whole interview on homelessness:
Hara Stefanidi: Homelessness has been an ongoing problem in Greece.
What can be the main psychological conditions that lead people to the state of being homeless? Do you think the economic issues Greece is facing has accelerated the problem by affecting people's mental health?
Despoina Limniotaki: Unemployment and lack of social support are the main reasons behind homelessness. We are behind in terms of primary care and preventive action. In Greece, we neither work proactively (for example to inform, educate and teach coping skills to the people who find themselves in front of life-altering situations) nor do we have the organisations and social support system to care for those people. The economic crisis in Greece has definitely made things more difficult for everyone but we never had the culture around care and mental health awareness that such a situation demands. We tend to isolate the sick and the helpless and we often mistake charity for strategic planning. Such attitude leads to depression, bad judgment concerning future plans and further withdrawal.
H.S.: It has been argued that homelessness is itself a risk factor for emotional disorder that can lead to trauma. Would you agree? And if so, to what degree do you believe that homelessness can affect a person's psychological status? How difficult/easy can it be to regain one's strength? Have you worked with a patient that is/was homeless, struggling with mental health issues?
D.L.: I have not worked with a person with no home at all but I have worked with many people who constantly have to change residences, locations and ways of living because of ongoing unemployment and mental health issues. So it is not just about the people we see on the streets but about many people who do not lead stable lives and that is definitely a risk factor for mental health problems. Let’s not cinematize homelessness: there are many levels to having nothing and struggling in life. The absence of the basic things that a person needs, such as a roof over one’s head, is a stressor that leads to vulnerability and emotional detachment. Homelessness leaves a person susceptible to abuse, substance use and further deterioration of their health. Very often, especially in Greece, we lack the support groups and community shelters where people can receive help and proper attention, monitoring of their condition and a chance to escape life in the streets. Other times, people find themselves in hospitals where doctors treat the symptoms but not the cause of the problem.
H.S.: Does our society's refusal to see and thus acknowledge the existence of homeless people affect their psychological status? And if so, to what degree would you suggest?
D.L.: It is a vicious circle of rejection of the people who do not represent the norm so, of course, this circle prolongs misery and psychological discomfort. The absence of social support is the beginning of many problems and the reason why it is so difficult for services to tackle the problem of homelessness since they first have to work towards eliminating the stigma around it. In a way, society creates both the problem and the solution to it but we wouldn’t be searching for solutions if we tried to change the lens we see things through.
H.S.: Why do you think our society prefers not to see homeless people?
D.L.: We tend to shy away from pain to protect ourselves from the uncomfortable truth of our own vulnerability and eventual decay. Also, society does not want to be reminded of its failure to prevent and build inclusive environments where people with different needs can live a stable, normal life.
* Despoina Limniotaki is a Psychologist MSc and the Founder of the social, co-operative business The Healing Tree, addressing the need to end the stigma against mental health problems, helping to improve the services, to raise understanding and gather help around those who need information and support (www.healingtreecommunity.com).