How Do We Measure Dignity?
By: Maureen Atwell, Executive Director on Apr 25, 2021
Dignity is a word you hear a lot if you work with people who are homeless, and it’s central to our mission at Hebron House. Part of our mission statement includes "restoring hope and dignity to those in need," and occasionally someone will ask me what we mean by "restoring dignity."
I’ve spent a lot of time asking myself and others: what does “dignity” mean to the people we serve, why is it important, and what are we doing to foster it?
My search for the answer to this question is shaped by my personal history: I spent years living hand to mouth, and I know the fear and shame of going hungry. Walking miles to work when I ran out of bus fare, bouncing more than one rent check, and going nearly a decade without health insurance are experiences I’m far too familiar with. Even 20 years later, with the security of a law degree and a house of my own, fear of poverty is a bruise that never completely fades.
I carry that suitcase with me in my daily work, but I also have a deep and abiding love of scientific analysis, so I approach the question of dignity like the nerd I am—looking for sources, reading research articles, talking to the people directly impacted, and evaluating the evidence. If you’re nerdy like me and want some science-y analysis on this topic, read on.
The English word for “dignity” comes from the Latin dignitatem, or worth. At its most basic, dignity is “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” Eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant held that dignity is an inherent human right, with free will being a critical cornerstone of both dignity and humanity. The primary violations of human dignity have been described as humiliation, instrumentalization, objectification, degradation, and dehumanization. Poverty law scholar Dr. Dharmendra Kumar Singh writes “The most injurious and debilitating characteristic of poverty is loss of dignity." The consequences of losing dignity include feelings of worthlessness, anger, depression, and damaged self-esteem.
People who lose their home also lose some of the most critical ingredients of dignity: free choice and decision-making control. In their darkest moments, they describe feeling invisible, unimportant, worthless, and without hope. The loss of dignity leads to anger and depression, may significantly worsen mental health and substance abuse issues, and can dismantle a person’s self-esteem. Overcoming homelessness becomes harder and harder when compounded by these factors.
In asking our guests what they feel diminishes their dignity, they echo much of what the research says: being avoided, ignored, and made to feel invisible, being yelled at, ordered around, or subject to arbitrary rules, feeling treated like a child, having their rights violated, and living in an environment that is dirty or doesn’t meet their basic needs.
The good news is that people have the capacity to regain their dignity, and with it, their sense of self-worth and motivation to change their life. When we ask our guests what builds dignity, their responses align with what the research says: receiving care or encouragement from others, getting personalized help to become more self-sufficient, belonging to a group, having choices, and having their basic needs met. In our conversations with them, we frequently hear words like compassion, kindness, empathy, and patience.
Many of these concepts are tangible, and we can embrace them enthusiastically in our work. Meeting basic needs, offering choices, and giving people personalized help to reach self-sufficiency are practices that date back to the very inception of our organization. Other factors, though, are more about creating an entire culture of respect, compassion, and kindness. Giving people dignity means that we behave toward them with dignity ourselves.
Dignity is not just a buzzword in our mission; it is both a human right and probably the single most important thing we can give another person. In our mission, restoring dignity means meeting people’s needs and acknowledging their worth with kindness and compassion. In recognizing that they matter, we see them as human, and in doing so, we become more human ourselves.
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