Scientist, researcher, doctor, what is the homeless person asking of you?

I am a trained medical doctor and budding researcher, but above all I am a person. I am never left unaffected by the plight of the vulnerable person. In Cape Town dirty children knock on my window with cupped hands, in Navrongo, Ghana, grown men fall down at my feet, hat in hand, in New York City African-American veterans cry out to the Lord in prayer on the street. Light bulb moment: I have no idea what it must be like to be homeless.

Most of us have no idea. We have friends, uncles, cousins we can call to help us out with a couch or a guest room. Most of us do not even think twice about uncomfortable park benches. We sit on them while we wait around, we don’t have to sleep on them. We side step spikes around buildings without thinking. To us a porch is just a porch and not a potential shelter from the rain. We do not see the uneven paving and spikes below bridges, because, let’s be honest, when do we ever have to think about “under the bridge”. (Maybe only when we pull out old Red Hot Chilli Peppers CDs from the basement). The homeless person may be more of an irritation to people like us, than a call to action, or a call to empathy and reflection.

In 2005, approximately 100 million people in the world were homeless and according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development statistics, in 2012 there were 633 782 people across America who were homeless. That’s a lot. And — surprise, surprise — the real numbers are probably a lot more.

Can you imagine the stress of being homeless? You are exposed to the elements, you are unsafe, open to being abused and harassed, you are not sure where you are going to find food, you are sleep deprived, you may have children to care for on the street, you may look for a job and no one wants to give you one, the list is endless.

If you are reading this, it means you have Internet, social media and thus, per definition, you are privileged and have the power to influence policy. If you are reading this on my Facebook feed or on LinkedIn, it means you are probably an academic too. Scientists, doctors, researchers, we need you. We need your vision, your critical thinking and your skills. We need planners and doers.

Here is my challenge to all you readers — what if, instead of giving one dollar to every homeless person you meet, you think up an idea, a way your city can improve the health and mental health of the homeless? What if, you in your medical, research, administrative, (insert talent or superpower) realm can organize and collaborate with those who are already working with the homeless? What if you could create a knowledge base for your city, and proposals to planners and politicians?

My work as a research associate at the Center for Urban Design and Mental Health this past summer has really opened my eyes. I have learnt that the way we design cities can influence not only our physical health, but also our mental health. I have read research describing the positive effects of green spaces on children, the way we can tweak buildings and designs to lower depression and social isolation in the elderly, amongst others, but very little on how we can design better for the mental health of the homeless. Isn’t it strange? The homeless have a high rate of mental illness and in many ways “the city” and its “built environment” is their livelihood. For them, the inability to find proper shelter may lead them one step closer to their death. But still we have a paucity of research on the effect of the built environment on this population. In many countries in the developing world there is very little research on the homeless population in general.

What if we, as researchers, thinkers, influencers, privileged individuals, choose to answer at least one research question on our local homelessness problem in the next ten years? What if we can find a way to translate this data into action in our communities? Do we not owe this to the less privileged and unsheltered individuals and families in our cities, countries, continents? Do we not owe this (for the American readers) to the veterans? Do we not owe this to ourselves?

My family is involved with the Hermanus Night Shelter Association in their hometown in the Western Cape of South Africa. Their area has no homeless shelter yet. I have spotted so-called “defensive architecture” in the town on my visit last month and I have heard (with sadness) that a few of the homeless people (from this affluent holiday destination that is Hermanus, yes), have succumbed to the elements. I hope to become more involved with this initiative in the future and hope that my future as a researcher and clinician will take me to other areas in the developing and developed world where I can research mental health and homelessness. The impact of the built environment on our health is fascinating. I wish to collaborate with others and do more research on this important topic. Maybe you, reader, will be one of them!

In conclusion, I have a good conversation starter for your next department cocktail party or nerdy dinner party, (you’re welcome): “If you could design and execute one good research study in your lifetime, what would your research question be?”

Here is mine: “What is the effect of the built environment on the mental health and wellbeing of the homeless population of (insert city where I’ll be living next year).”

I hope you find yours.