Lia van Doorn is a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in the Dutch city of Utrecht. In her 2010 study published in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, she concluded that people drastically alter their perceptions of time and space when they live on the streets. To adapt to their circumstances, the perception of time for people “sleeping rough” changes from a linear to a cyclical model. Their perception of space also changes, so that they no longer distinguish between private and public spaces.
Professor van Doorn followed more than 50 people in Utrecht for 7 years. She notes, “I found that when someone finds themselves on the street, they change their perceptions in order to cope. Their perceptions of time and space change.”
For people sleeping rough, their “time horizon” shrinks. According to Professor van Doorn, “Once people end up on the street, they begin living day-to-day instead of thinking farther ahead. They don’t plan much anymore. . . . Sometimes they even live minute-by-minute.”
These changes in perceptions not only affect the lives of people on the street, but also their service providers. Providers need to bear in mind differences in the way consumers manage their time. They need to understand why it is so hard for people sleeping rough to keep appointments. Professor van Doorn emphasizes:
If you tell a person who is homeless that in 2 weeks, they need to be in your office at eleven o’clock, that’s another world. Their time perspective does not include next week or the week after, so often they are not able to show up on time. It would be a good idea for the social worker to go and see the person in the area where they are staying. Go and meet them on the street. Try to look for a place and a time that suits the consumer.
It is also important to acknowledge that people living on the street have a different relationship to space. The primary difference is that they must live out their private lives in public spaces. For them, all space is public and potentially unsafe. “They face a lot of hassle on the street and there’s always noise. They have to watch their backs all the time. . . . It’s important in shelters to provide a quiet area or maybe some small corners where people can relax and sit back a bit without loud music or television,” says Professor van Doorn
These changing perceptions of time and space are effective survival strategies, but they make it more difficult to re-adapt to the routines of the housed. “The paradox of this adaptation of the perceptions of time and space is that, on the one hand, it makes life on the streets more manageable and bearable to them but, on the other hand, it contributes to the continuation of their situation of homelessness,” Professor van Doorn concluded in her study.
Utrecht substantially reduced the number of people sleeping rough over the past 10 years. Other Dutch cities experienced the same decrease. Programs designed to assist rough sleepers increasingly account for this issue. Service providers now focus on developing the capacity of consumers to set and reach long-term goals. Under a national plan, people find shelter or housing, with the aim of reducing the number of rough sleepers by two-thirds.
“When the program was introduced, reaction from service providers was quite negative,” says Professor van Doorn. “They said, ‘These people are on the streets and will continue to be on the streets. It’s not possible to take them off the street. Where can we resettle them? They won’t be able to live on their own.’ Those negative reactions have changed.”
Professor van Doorn is optimistic. “Now we say that if there are people on the streets, they shouldn’t be there. We can get rid of this problem; we can solve it. The program has changed not only the lives of people who were homeless, but the perception and attitude toward homelessness of the people who work with them.”
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