By: Jim Bell, Siloam Mission CEO

What gives you dignity?

There was a time, not too long ago, that I would have had an easy answer to the question. Dignity is having a home, a job, family that loves you and friends who care about you.

But after spending a year listening to men and women who experience homelessness in Winnipeg, I’ve come to realize that dignity is something else entirely.

Because what happens if you don’t have all of those things?

What if you don’t have a corner of the world to call your own? What if you are estranged from your family? What if you grew up in the foster care system and don’t have many friends to turn to? What if your physical and cognitive disabilities make it hard to find employment?

These are real concerns for thousands of people in our city. But it doesn’t mean they have — or deserve — any less dignity than anyone else.

Beyond the home and the career and the social networks, dignity is first and foremost being valued. And that should be afforded to everyone.

Maybe your experience is like mine.

I used to drive down Main Street every day, underneath the overpass by Higgins, past the residential hotels, bars and pawnshops.

I would see people who looked like they were in need of help and make assumptions about their life. I would either feel pity or I would question their life choices.

It’s easy to romanticize — and vilify — poverty.

It’s easy to romanticize poverty by seeing people living in poverty as lacking a voice or personal agency. It’s easy to see their situation without any context and reduce them to objects of pity.

It’s also easy to vilify poverty by assuming the poverty of a person is a direct consequence of their actions and choices. It’s easy to judge their situation without any context and reduce them to objects of contempt.

But I’ve come to realize that when we romanticize or vilify people, we strip them of their dignity.

People experiencing poverty and homelessness don’t need our pity, and they don’t need our judgment.

Their needs are the same as yours and mine. We all need to feel respected and valued.

We all need safe shelter for the night. Healthy and nutritious food to nourish our bodies. A job that creates an income and provides purpose.

We all need a community of friends to discuss anything from the weather to personal dreams and struggles. Or who will win the big game this weekend (the Jets, of course).

We all need healthcare when we get sick and medications to mend our wounds. Peace of mind that our bodies are getting the care they need.

Above all, we need to feel like we are somebody. Somebody who is known and valued. Somebody who is seen and heard and worthy.

Because that’s the thing about dignity: it is not felt unless other people recognize it.

If we want to make our city a better place, the challenge for all of us is to recognize somebody as worthy and valued. Because that’s often all it takes.

Originally published by The Winnipeg Free Press