by Mateja Mihinjac
A couple of weeks ago a North American native man sat next to me while I was enjoying my lunch and observing the busy downtown street that had been pedestrianized during a special event in Saskatoon, Canada. I greeted him and asked how he was doing. This initial interaction led to a conversation I did not expect.
As we started chatting I soon learned he was homeless and unable to get back to his home on a First Nation’s Reserve, so he’s been sleeping in downtown streets. I offered him the rest of my lunch and a soda drink, which he accepted with gratitude.
Then he shared the words that touched my heart: “I’m just lonely.”
He explained that he often walks up and down the street to kill time, trying to get some money and just trying to survive. This day was no exception. He said he’s never seen this many people in this street, usually occupied with motor vehicles. Despite the business of the street, however, he felt lonely because he had no one to talk to. I felt honoured to have had a chance to make a connection with him and offer him what we often fail to show to street people: attention and respect.
It brought to mind two essential steps we have learned in SafeGrowth that underlie meaningful relationships and the ability to establish trust with those most vulnerable.
STEP ONE: ESTABLISH INITIAL CONNECTION
Years ago, psychologist Abraham Maslow described the importance of human connection and sense of belonging in the famous Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.
As social beings we have an innate need to connect with fellow humans and, in its absence, we crave social contact. Even more, loneliness has been identified as a growing health and social concern that reduces longevity and quality of life.
Yet, especially in public places, we often ignore opportunities for social bridges or are afraid to establish the connection because we feel too vulnerable, are distrustful of “strangers”, or we fear or stigmatize them. Some people vilify groups or individuals whose lives and choices they poorly understand without offering an opportunity to get to know them.
Establishing a connection with a smile and hello can be a simple initial step to building meaningful relationships. Some think this can be misinterpreted, but in truth, it isn’t difficult to be straightforward and honest.
STEP TWO: BUILD MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS
Meaningful relationships and human connectedness helped us survive in tribal communities and those same values can now help us survive and thrive in neighbourhood communities as well.
Our work in SafeGrowth hinges upon residents and local communities establishing trustful relationships and working together in common purpose - prerequisites for building the social glue for neighborhood problem-solving and change-making.
Having had a chance to live in different countries and meet people of various backgrounds I have learned to appreciate the importance of establishing connections with strangers. I make the effort to acknowledge, establish eye contact, smile or say hello to anyone I meet, regardless of their background or appearance.
Because of this I have been able to establish meaningful relationships in my personal and professional life, and am very fortunate to do so. I hope I will never have to say those three scary words: “I am lonely”. No one should.