Featured image description: White text on a pink background that says: “Why the Individualist Mindset Fails Homeless People”. On the right is the a logo for the blog, ”Trans Autistic Feminist” (a gold neurodiversity helix on a black trans symbol) with the blog name in purple.
CW mentions of various kinds of bigotry, abuse, death, government abuse, suicide, alcohol mention
Recently I had a conversation with a friend about my ongoing situation. One of the things she said to me was along the line of “see Milla, this is why the neoliberal idea of individual responsibility [aka the individualist mindset] mostly doesn’t align with human psychology.” Despite not knowing much about psychology, it resonated a lot with me as this was something I realised was the case with me.
What is individual responsibility?
In a nutshell, it’s basically the idea every person has responsibility for themselves. If they want to get somewhere, they have to work hard for it, and they will get there. In other words, the more somebody works to achieve their goals, the more successful they are in theory. They will have more money and more success as everybody has equal opportunities. It doesn’t work like that in reality as it ignores how bigotry and stereotypes harm marginalised people, likewise how capitalism is not fair to anyone without money.
It also ignores an essential aspect of human diversity. Some people simply do need help to achieve things, no matter how responsible they are or how much initiative they take. Humans are more interdependent on each other than autonomous beings, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It ignores the fact some humans initially need help to do things that they can do more autonomously in the long run. This is also a key belief that is part of the disability rights movement.
Applying this to homelessness
An excellent example of this is homelessness, which is one of the many tricky situations where “individual responsibility” will not help people resolve them.
Homeless people are often scared and traumatised and also do not have the money or connections to house themselves. Many of them are also more likely to be marginalised such as being disabled, LGBTQ+ or addicted to drugs/alcohol. All of these are structural issues that cannot be solved simply by individuals making decisions. They can only be solved through government policy and accurate knowledge that is passed down through training.
This reality contradicts the predominant messaging that says people need to take individual responsibility, Hence. What this message actually is saying is that systematic issues are not something that governments and broader society want or should take responsibility for.
Individual responsibility will not stop autistic meltdowns, which are caused by the environment around an autistic person that they cannot control. This lack of understanding by providers is something that makes many services dangerous for autistic people, including homeless accommodation.
Individual responsibility won’t stop the fact that even if people try their best to save money, they are still being underpaid, to begin with. Hence, they may have to resort to things like sex work, moonlighting and petty theft just to survive.
Individual responsibility will not stop the overwhelming urges to continue dangerous habits due to the cycle of dependency and the lack of access to support to recover.
Individual responsibility will not prevent the various kinds of bigotry that makes people homeless.
Here is a very blunt meme to set the scene for what I’m about to say next:
As somebody who has been failed due to this mindset for many months, it upsets me how much this mindset is rampant in services and government. I tried very fucking hard to get housed and was autonomous as much as possible, and it would never be enough. I know first hand this mindset does not help.
- I pre-emptively reached out to a lot of support in good faith and expected to eventually get what I needed.
- I pushed my limits as an autistic person by working full time and commuting for hours a day, which was unsustainable but was only done due to the deteriorating situation.
- I fled for my life from a familiar, yet unsafe environment with no plan aside from a place to sleep that night because time ran out.
- I persisted chasing up people (who didn’t actually care for my wellbeing) as best as I can.
- I continued dealing with toxic people who I used to trust because I left them with no warning, and they still had most of my belongings.
- I repeatedly got the police off my back because I didn’t trust them period – even when free legal advice was offered.
- I dealt with identifying burnout and trauma triggers and began to learn coping mechanisms to not harm those around me, as l began to come to terms with 20 plus years of childhood abuse.
Most importantly, I fled up north to an entirely new area because I was failed so badly by services down south. This was because I realised I was not going to get help because people assumed:
- I could get housed myself at the age of 23
- I had friends and family I could move in with
- could process lots of resources and act on them despite being in a state of trauma which makes processing info impossible
- It was OK to gatekeep me for any reason, as due to being disabled I’d be more likely to give up
- They were ok with my trauma being prolonged as they didn’t care for my welfare as they weren’t responsible for it (even if it was fatal).
- They were just outright prejudiced against disabled and/or transgender people.
The silver lining
On the bright side, I’ve grown so much from my experiences and shattered my own expectations. I lived like somebody my age (minus the homelessness) for the first time in my life. I lived as myself. I’ve transitioned as much as I can. I’ve found somewhere I can call home until it’s time for me to emigrate off this island. I’m able to reach out into the community.
However, I shouldn’t have had to do it in such awful circumstances and worsened by services to the point where my trust for services has been completely destroyed. The cliff edge between education and work is real for any disabled person. Still, for me, it was unnecessarily steep to the point where my trust in services has been destroyed. I won’t reach out for help going forward if I don’t have to.
With all the above said, please bear it in mind I address how this mindset from services leads to harm.
How individualism affects the operation of services
Services that are driven an individualist approach that is not fit for purpose, and other related ideas, namely that:
- Somebody who doesn’t accept whatever is offered or get on their knees and begs for it (literally and metaphorically) is not trying hard enough
- Service users are meant to keep going around and asking people to help until somebody agrees to help or wait several times.
- People should tell their life story to each service they engage for the chance that they may offer help. In reality, they’ll often reject people for no good reason and never deal with them again.
I elaborated on the above points in more details in this article.
All of this sustained, relentless trauma would be hard for any survivor. However, for multiply marginalised survivors, it is even more challenging to deal with. It stops people reaching out for help which is often the only option left to protect their mental health. That’s not refusing to take responsibility for their life, that’s protecting themselves from further harm – there is a huge difference.
However, as these services are influenced by the individualist mindset, they would blame the service users (usually partially, but often entirely). “She stopped contacting us? Guess she didn’t need us after all LOL,” they say, not acknowledging that they ejected her in the first place with no chance of appeal. Or, “guess he’s finally taken responsibility for himself, glad he is off our list” when he managed to learn coping mechanisms for himself that may or may not be healthy, such as drinking alcohol daily.
Alternatively, the most dismissive prospective is “the fact they’ve stopped reaching out means they obviously didn’t try hard enough, and thus doesn’t deserve our support AHAHAHAHAHA.” When in reality, people who disengage from shitty services are taking individual responsibility for their welfare because these services have no interest in doing so.
Or, to take the good faith approach for the sake of balance, they are so overworked they lose track of their clients or can’t allocate support for everyone. That said, even when there are funding constraints, bigoty and individualism persist.
Services are meant to help people. And that requires a collectivist mindset, which is the precise opposite of what services provide. It is only now I can get support from LGBTQ+ oriented services regarding both housing and employment. The collectivist support prior to this came from people who knew me personally, such as those who offered me a place to stay, for example. In other words – socialism.
Individualism in a wider UK political context
I’ve had lots of thoughts about social class in the UK, which I will ramble about at length in another post. Still, a key point relevant to this is that the individual responsibility mindset means that solidarity in the UK doesn’t exist on a societal level. Services and authorities don’t consider it on a massive scale, and even if they did, the funding just isn’t there nor accurate understanding of service users. People are being sent on their way to deal with their problems themselves with no regard for the consequences. For many of the most vulnerable and marginalised people, this is a death sentence.
For the majority of people in England primarily, they are complicit in the state-sanctioned murder of marginalised people (whom die largely due to mistreatment by services from all sectors). Even if they say otherwise, that’s what their actions show. Their actions are rooted in political apathy (or if they aren’t apathetic, they support the pushers of this mindset – Blairites, Starmites, centrists, conservatives and fascists). Both apathy and political participation from these people embody the individual responsibility mindset.
Much of this is due to brainwashing over decades of right-wing government policy (including New Labour, who were right wing), meaning that they distance themselves from those that have been failed the most by society and refuse to face reality. Usually they say nothing, but can also manifest through laughing at them over reality TV shows like Big Brother and The Jeremy Kyle Show in the guise of entertainment. Hence, the vast majority of complicit people do not realise that this internalised feeling of alienation from them is harmful. As it is, The Jeremy Kyle Show was finally cancelled in 2019 but only after a former guest took their own life.
However, intentions don’t negate the impact. The number of homeless people on the streets begging for change in the UK embodies this. A minority of them actually prefer to stay homeless due to being failed by services. Instead, they find it easier to live a life on the streets than try to get back into employment and secure housing. For them, it’s too distressing and traumatic to adjust back out of this. I never slept street homeless so won’t elaborate on this further, but I will state that services will never accept responsibility for forcing those people into that position.
If it wasn’t for individuals with a collectivist mindset who helped me – likewise a relocation up to another part of the country where more services helped me – I would have died months ago. My future now is looking bright – it’s not perfect, but compared to a year ago it is a vast improvement. I was one of the lucky ones.
The importance of fostering collectivism
It’s essential to not forget those who aren’t so lucky nor privileged. That means trying to foster solidarity with other people and a collectivist mindset. This is much easier said than done, especially in a country where political apathy, tone policing and ad hominem attacks are rampant partially due to the individualist mindset. Likewise, those who are so used to an individualist society around them, adjusting in such a way will be difficult. It is challenging for me – as it is complicated by a lifetime of trauma and internalised bigotry I am still unpacking. This is especially important for services whom are often the last line of support for those that have no one else to turn to.
Do it for those that have died – and will die – as a result of society failing them. Even if only for yourself – after all, dear reader, could be made homeless at any time.
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