The Stories we tell Ourselves about Youth Homelessness

The other morning at the end of a swim practice I was chatting with some fellow swimmers about a new grant we had received to explore policy and poverty. An older gentleman I hadn’t talked with before was sitting nearby and overheard our conversation. He piped up:

“My wife and I used to run drop-in for homeless youth on weekends. Just before Christmas I was surprised when no one showed up. We went out to the streets and no one was there either. They had all gone home for Christmas. Makes you wonder…”

The clear allusion being made was that street-involved youth aren’t in fact homeless, but rather choose not to be at home. I highlighted to him research that shows that regardless of where choice to exit home lies (ie. kicked out or fleeing), over 70% of homeless youth identify abuse in the family home as the cause of their homelessness.

His response: “Is the abuse real or imagined? I worked in social services for over 40 years.”

It struck me that this anecdote was a story that he had at the tip of his tongue, and was happy to intrude on a stranger’s conversation to share. It obviously meant a lot to him to have this narrative that homeless youth are just run-aways, ne’er-do-wells, and not so much in need of housing as we might presume. I suspect that we weren’t the first with whom he had shared this anecdote, and it wasn’t the first time he used his “expertise” from in the sector to add clout to the premise.

In a broader sense, this narrative of homeless youth as “bad kids” is a popular and a common one. It serves to relieve a sense of guilt we feel when youth, who seem more vulnerable (innocent? fragile?), are part of the experience of homelessness. This story I’m sure gets perpetuated in middle-class households across our communities. Yet, this narrative of “street punks” goes directly against research that shows that most are grappling with a difficult home life, and few, for example, grapple with substance use prior to their experience of homelessness. Of course youth who have left an abusive home environment might choose to go home for Christmas. Or maybe because it was Chritsmas, a lot of other places had activities that youth were choosing to go to instead.

Or maybe they just didn’t want to hang out with this asshole anymore on weekends.

Shelter Use in Canada

Although the vision in London and across Canada is to end homelessness, emergency shelters continue to play a key role within the system as it stands. They serve as a ‘sure thing’, a landing spot for people as they encounter crisis, or a short (or unfortunately longish) term solution for those with more complex challenges. When options run out, people are able to access shelter on short notice and be assured of having their basic needs met for at least a brief period of time. In fact, the future ideal state still includes emergency shelters as part of a comprehensive system. This is because people will still encounter crises and will need a place to go to connect with the system and be supported into new permanent housing. However, what will change will be the length of stay in shelters and the services received, with very short stays and intensive services to ensure quick exit to appropriate housing.

(Side note: Because new people will continue to be de-housed for a variety of reasons, the terminology within the sector for ending homelessness is ‘functional zero’. This is a state when everyone who is de-housed is continually re-housed. More information on functional zero can be found at: http://homelesshub.ca/blog/infographic-what-functional-zero.)

So, what is happening in emergency shelters is important information to understand how we are doing on ending homelessness. To this end, the Government of Canada has recently released their updated national shelter stats (covering up to 2014), and I believe there are a few important points worth mentioning:

1. Fewer people are accessing emergency shelters in Canada

Number of shelter usersThis is obviously good news. This means that to some degree we are doing a better job at preventing homelessness in the first place, or keeping people housed once they have been re-housed. The majority of these shelter users stay one night, meaning that we are also doing a good job in helping people find permanent housing options.

2. However, those who are staying in shelter are staying longer

Shelter length of stayThis means that counter to the efforts of Housing First, meaning rapid rehousing of those who use shelter the most, chronicity is increasing. I would be curious to see whether there are regional trends to these numbers and if communities with extremely low or negative vacancy rates (such as Toronto and Vancouver) are skewing the numbers. However, this speaks clearly to a greater need for affordable housing options to support people in exiting shelter.

3. Leading to pressures on shelter capactiy

Shelter occupany rates

This creates a challenge for government: Do you build more shelters to respond to occupancy demands at the same time that you are trying to provide more permanent housing options to reduce shelter use? Interestingly the same parallel exists in housing for frail seniors, where there is demand for more long-term care facilities while the ideal is that more people are supported to age at home. Do you respond to the immediate need if it may counter the long-term ideal state? My response would be to specify the focus and look community-to-community and population-to-population. For example, a community may have overall sufficient shelter capacity by the stats, but insufficient for a particular population such as LGBTQ or single women. Or, a whole province might average sufficient capacity yet one urban area might have a significant need. Therefore, I think we hold the vision of reducing emergency shelters in general, while perhaps increasing capacity in specific areas for specific populations.

In conclusion, I see both good news and bad news in the stats. However, I think the message is clear that we still need more affordable, permanent, and safe housing options to move people from shelter to home, and the rights supports to make this successful.

A Call For Compassion

Poor LawEnglish poor laws, dating back centuries, were termed as a form of “relief” for the poor. However, in reality they were simply a means to remove poverty from sight. Children were arrested and put into workhouses, men were put in stocks or returned to their city of birth, sex workers and those with major mental illnesses were jailed. These poor laws, lasting into the early 1900s in Canada, were rooted in moral and class assumptions that poverty was a personal failing, and to see poverty was an affront to the non-poor. The solution clearly was to remove poverty from sight, to see people experiencing poverty as delinquent, a scourge, a blight on society.

Yesterday an interaction between a store owner and two individuals allegedly injecting drugs gained significant attention. As can be seen in the video linked in the London Free Press story, the store owner crosses the street, yells and threatens the individuals with a bat, until they stand up and move along. As highlighted in the article responses to the incident have been very mixed, with the majority of Twitter and Facebook comments applauding the act as a means of cleaning up the core, while a minority of others suggest that the threat was both illegal and ineffective in addressing addiction.

What is most interesting and worrisome to me is the underlying narrative when I press individuals who support the actions of the store owner. I highlight that threatening someone with a weapon is actually an illegal act and the response is that the visible and public use of illegal drugs is itself a threat. There is an implicit and often explicit sentiment that someone who uses drugs publicly deserves to be assaulted because they themselves were first to commit an affront to others who had to observe them. Therefore, the premise is that to see someone experiencing addiction engage in their addiction is a harm to the observer.

This brings us back to the poor laws of preceding centuries. The same classist and inhumane assumptions that seek to hide poverty out of sight drive the desire to hide addiction out of sight. Not only is this completely ineffective in actually addressing addiction, it is a sign of a society that is willing to see some as less human because of their health condition.

Let’s keep some perspective: The person who suffers most from the public use of drugs is not the person who observes it, it’s the person caught in the grips of addiction.

8 ways that Ontario’s Affordable Housing Update will help end Homelessness

Housing VissionOntario’s Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy Update was announced today. Here are 8 ways that this update will help end homelessness in Ontario communities:

  1. Increasing CHPI Funding – CHPI stands for Community Homelessness Prevention Initiative. This is the provincial contribution to municipal level services for people experiencing homelessness. It is worth noting that in many communities, such as London, CHPI funds provide the vast bulk of government funding. At about 80% of the homelessness funding from governments in London, any adjustment has significant implications. So the announced $45M increase over 3 years (from $294M) is a good example of ‘putting your money where your mouth is’.
  2. Providing operating support for Supportive Housing – Housing First is a proven model and it involves rapid rehousing with supports. That last bit, with supports, can prove to be the biggest challenge in a stretched system. $100M in operating funding for supportive housing based on best practices will have a real impact in helping people find home, and most importantly, remain housed. This is homelessness prevention.
  3. Switching the affordable housing framework to focus on portability – We know that demand for affordable housing out-strips supply, yet we also know that there are vacant apartments throughout our community. A limitation of the current model of affordable housing is that the subsidy is attached to units rather than being attached to the individual who requires housing. Portable housing benefits that follow the individual will greatly assist our ability to help people move quickly from homeless to housed.
  4. Helping women leave violence without becoming homeless – When we consider pathways to homelessness for women, violence and trauma are over-arching concerns. Unfortunately, for many women leaving a violent relationship has equated to becoming homeless. So, considering portability mentioned above, a new portable benefit is being provided to help 3,000 survivors of domestic violence move to a new and safe home rather than becoming chronically homeless.
  5. Getting serious about Indigenous homelessness – Women aren’t the only population with unique needs around homelessness, and we have known for a very long time that Indigenous persons are vastly over-represented among the homeless. We are finally getting serious about the issue and collaborating on an Indigenous Housing Strategy.
  6. Innovating to increase the number of units – All the ways mentioned so far are about program specific supports with an impact on homelessness, but we do also simply need more supply of affordable units. Yes, we need new construction (see #8), but this is costly and slow. If we can integrate affordability into new construction already being done within the private sector we can increase supply more expediently. Inclusionary zoning is a model that allows municipal governments to put affordability requirements into agreements with private developers. Formerly impossible due to provincial legislation, the promise is for tools to make this doable.
  7. Getting our social housing act together – Existing social housing, provided as rent-geared-to-income, is an excellent model to provide housing to those on meager Ontario Works rates, yet a terrible model in terms of the financial impact on municipalities. The per unit revenue is simply insufficient to meet the capital costs and social support requirements for this type of housing. Thus, social housing has become stigmatized and into dis-repair. A strategy to reform, renew, and refinance social housing can greatly improve the quality of housing that is often the first home for people who have been chronically homeless.
  8. New supportive units – As mentioned above, we also simply need more units. Particularly, units that have support for particular populations. I would like to see managed alcohol as an example of new supportive units, but we shall see. 1,500 new units is a good starting target.

Are you sure you’re ready to talk about mental health?

Vicous-cycle-of-mental-illness-and-povertyLet me preface what I’m about to say with acknowledging my support and thanks for #BellLetsTalk. I believe that any effort to de-stigmatize mental illness is a valuable one whether it comes from corporations, academia, or activists. However, as a nurse and educator who works in mental health, I question how ready we actually are to have the tough conversations required to address mental health long-term? We can tweet and text our support for the cause, but can we really talk about the issues involved? If so, here are some of the conversations we need to have:

Mental illness isn’t primarily a middle-class issue.

Everyone’s mental well-being is important, and every person matters. However, stories told of mental illness and recovery are often as much reflective of personal privilege and opportunity as they are of personal strength. In fact, my own story of recovery from depression depends on access to resources, supports, employment benefits, and opportunity that are far from available to all. The hard truth is that people experiencing poverty are nearly twice as likely to have a mental health challenge than those who are middle-class, and over 7 times as likely as those who are wealthy. Comments like “mental illness affects us all” serve to effectively de-stigmatize mental health, while simultaneously masking the significant variances in who is impacted most by mental illness. So if we truly want to talk about mental health, we need to talk about why it’s much more of an issue for those experiencing poverty than an issue of the middle-class.

Meeting the basic needs of people experiencing mental health challenges means bigger government.

As demonstrated by the thorough and powerful reporting by Jennifer O’Brien into the substandard housing conditions faced by many with mental health challenges in London, basic needs of food and housing prove out of reach to many. With many individuals who are in the midst of a mental illness living on Ontario Works at $676/month and inadequately supported in the community, affordable housing wait lists of years, and food prices rising, mental illness is equating to hunger and homelessness. Altering this reality means a significant raise to two tax-supported government systems: affordable housing and social assistance. If we are willing to talk about mental health, then we need to also talk about an expanded social safety net and what it will cost.

The first step is to stop causing mental illness.

The root causes of mental illness are complex, interactive, and quite individual. The role of genetics is often highlighted as the idea that “mental illness is an illness like any other” is effectively de-stigmatizing. However, the role of genetics is often over-stated, with Dr. Gabor Mate teaching us that environmental factors and determinants of health play a much greater role, and even genetic predisposition is itself effected by the environment. A greater explanatory factor than genetic predisposition is the experience of trauma. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, cultural abuse, emotional abuse are primary root causes of mental illness and are perpetuated by us. In fact, half of the women reading this post will have experienced physical or sexual violence, the majority perpetuated by a male intimate partner. Therefore, if we are willing to talk about mental health, we should also be willing to stop our own acts of violence and stop perpetuating trauma. Are we ready to talk about mental health but avoiding talking about our violence against women?

(Note: If you are a woman experiencing violence in London support is available at Women’s Community House.)

Some people who commit crimes have mental health challenges.

Compassion is easy when we are not personally effected, can we maintain it when we are? It’s possible that you have or will be victim of a crime, whether it’s something minor like having change taken from your car, or major like being assaulted. It’s possible that the person who commits this crime has a mental health challenge. If this occurs, will your response to this be tempered by your compassion around mental illness, or will it be driven by the evolutionary desire for vengeance? With those facing mental health challenges incarcerated en masse, I would suggest that neither individuals nor the justice system are particularly good at considering the impact of illness on behaviours, and how we might better assist people to be well. The out-cry surrounding Vince Li getting day passes, even though not criminally responsible, shows that vengeance reigns over compassion. We avoid talking about mental illness and crime because thinking of those with mental health challenges as criminals has been a horrendous part of the stigmatization process. However, if we are willing to talk about mental health, we need to be willing to talk about how we can reform our justice system to stop having jail serve as the new asylum.

Many of us discard our own mentally ill children.

I left this one to last as it is the most personal and most painful for many, including myself (my brother’s experience of homelessness started when he was kicked out of our family home). Visiting any youth shelter, you will find a group of youth who have been driven out, kicked out, and frequently simply discarded by families. Where many have the misconception of homeless youth as “bad kids who run away”, I highlight that the lead cause of youth homelessness is the experience of violence in the home. And, the overwhelming majority of youth experiencing homelessness face a mental health challenge. Therefore, when confronted most closely with mental health challenges within our family, many of us respond poorly and reject rather than support them. If we are going to talk about mental health, then we need to talk about how we respond to those in our own family who struggle.

(Note: I want to acknowledge that so many, many of you do the very opposite. You are the rocks, the amazing supports for you loved ones through their difficult times. You are their pathway to recovery and I want to thank you…it’s not you who I’m talking about here.)

So yes, let’s talk about mental health.

For sure, we need to. Mental health is a catastrophe and a crisis. However, if the primary narrative is the cost of mental illness on our economy, and the solution is driven by workplace wellness, then I think we are missing a lot of the conversation. The issues go beyond middle-class concerns, and get to fundamental questions of how we structure our society, how we share our resources, and how we live together. Let’s have those conversations too.

Why help refugees when Canadians are homeless?

Syrian RefugeesDiscussion of the Syrian refugee crisis was common around family dinner tables over the holiday season. With the new Canadian Government working quickly to fulfill their election pledge, communities across Canada are beginning to receive their first government sponsored refugees. I have decided to make my New Year’s resolution this year to raise $2500 for settlement of Syrian refugees in London. To many this seems counter-intuitive given my role as Chair of the London Homeless Coalition, as their lead argument is ‘why help refugees when Canadians are homeless?’

Although this seems like a straight-forward either/or question, there are several factors to consider. Firstly, should Canada even take refugees? In my mind, there are two key reasons why we should. 1) Canada’s position of respect in the world is largely based on our stance as being a multi-cultural nation with borders open to all peoples of the world. Both my father, and my grandfather on my mother’s side, are immigrants to Canada, just two of the people who bring mix to our diverse society, so I’m particularly thankful for their journey to this country. As Canadians, we have a long history of accepting refugees from conflict situations, and I have had the privilege of serving as a nurse with some of these families. 2) From a pragmatic position, Canada depends on immigration to maintain an economically important level of population growth. Closed borders would equate to stagnant or declining populations, which are catastrophic for GDP-increasing economic activity (take a look at Detroit on Google Maps satellite view to see impact of population decline). We need to keep the borders open to grow our communities especially as our population ages.

Secondly, in my mind the various activities government take part in, such as public safety, infrastructure, health, education, immigration, and homelessness, are not mutually exclusive. That is, accepting refugees does not mean we can’t continue to do better on homelessness. And we are doing better. In particular, we are getting better at helping people move from homeless to housed. This is crucial to me, as when I worked as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness I was eternally frustrated that I could assist people with their health needs yet they remained homeless. With new models of Housing First we are doing better at the back end of the system, helping people exit homelessness, though I do wonder about the front end (ie. the number of new people becoming homeless). We can end homelessness and help integrate new Canadians from Syria at the same time.

Which brings me to my third point, these are new Canadians. The very question of ‘why help Syrian refugees when Canadians are homeless’ ignores the fact that these are individuals becoming Canadian. So it’s like asking, ‘why help new Canadians when Canadians who have been here longer are homeless’, which certainly seems tinged in xenophobia to me rather than sincere concern.

Which leads to my next point: a general skepticism that those making these remarks are truly invested in assisting people who are experiencing homelessness. Are individuals expressing this concern subsequently lobbying the government to invest more in homeless services? Are they volunteering time with or donating to homeless-serving agencies? Are they voting for governments that will expand the social safety net to prevent and reduce homelessness? Or are they tapping into a nationalism that actually ends at the tip of their own nose? I ask, because it seems that some of the same individuals complaining about Syrian refugees and suddenly seemingly being concerned about the homeless, have in the past complained about homeless services as being a waste of money.

My final thought on the issue is that it is truly up to us as a community to determine how much of a benefit this migration is to our city. If we accept people, if we welcome them, if we grant them opportunities, and if we extend the same neighbourly support that we, or our parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents received on coming to Canada, then we will gain exponentially back as Londoners.

If you want to be a part of this welcome, please consider being 1 of 50 people donating $50 to support settlement of Syrian refugees in London.

Photo: Derek Ruttan, London Free Press – http://www.lfpress.com/2016/01/04/more-than-800-government-assisted-syrian-refugees-expected-to-arrive-in-london-by-the-end-of-february

Letter to Council

In light of the current multi-year budgeting process at City Hall, I drafted this letter on behalf of the London Homeless Coalition:

Dear Mayor Brown and esteemed members of London City Council,

On Thursday, October 8th the London Homeless Coalition hosted activities for World Homeless Action day. These activities served to highlight that homelessness is still a significant concern in our community, yet we are in the process of solving homelessness together in London.

As London City Council considers new spending priorities for multi-year budgeting, we as the London Homeless Coalition wanted to take a moment to write to you about our vision for doing better around homelessness. The Coalition exists to advise, shape, and coordinate community responses to homelessness in London, including what we can do as a municipality.

At the poverty conversation on October 17 (thank you to several of you for attending), Sister Sue Wilson shared with us that because poverty is human–made, it can also be undone. We would echo this same comment for homelessness. At the same forum, Deputy Premiere Deb Matthews shared that it was because of feedback received in consultations in London that the Government of Ontario has included the goal of ending homelessness in their Poverty Reduction Strategy.

We, as those most invested in the homeless sector in London, believe that homelessness is a solvable problem.

So what does this mean for us as a community and you as a Council? This means that we need to use our current resources wisely, and invest new resources in solution-oriented activities. The recent announcement by the Salvation Army of their move away from emergency shelter to housing solutions is reflective of a shift in using current resources wisely. Our latest shelter statistics show us that in fact the number of unique users of emergency shelter is on the decline. Similarly, in spite of a reduction in emergency shelter beds, shelter occupancy continues on average at less than 90%. We believe that this is reflective of the impact of Housing First programs now being delivered by CMHA Middlesex, London CAReS, Homes 4 Women, and others, as well as a housing focus across all agencies in London. We are having impact in the lives of people experiencing homelessness. In particular, we are helping people find home. With money freed up from emergency shelters you are now investing in a massive service collaboration to house street-level women at risk. This is a shift from band-aid responses to permanent solutions, and we laud this shift.

So what about new money and new opportunities? We believe that new money is still required in the homeless prevention system. Although shifts in service delivery will lead to savings in this sector as well as others, sometimes these shifts require investment of new resources. Housing supplements are a good example of this need. Housing supplements are an important piece of the puzzle for Housing First solutions. However, although agencies often have the staff and skills to delivering Housing First, the need for actual supplements remains high. This is an important investment in housing solutions, in solving homelessness.

London has a Homeless Prevention System Implementation Plan. As highlighted above, we are making excellent progress on this plan. So much so that London is beginning to be recognized as a leader in solving homelessness. However, there are a number of components of this plan that are still in process or being developed. A strategy for youth is a good example of this. Youth are the fastest growing demographic accessing emergency shelter. The plan in development will include key ideas for us as a community to solve youth homelessness, and will require some resourcing. This is money well spent.

Solving homelessness is not simply an administrative requirement, a responsibility of the municipality. Solving homelessness together is about community building, and is as important a community building task as the London Plan, transit strategy, and river development. You, as City Council, have an incredible opportunity to lead in this plan by making new investments in the sector. This will set our community up to leverage provincial opportunities given our alignment with their goal of ending homelessness. We believe that this is wise stewardship of municipal dollars, and we look forward to being a partner on coordinating the community to make the best use of these dollars driven by clear outcomes.

We remain available at all times to discuss budgeting or implementation components of solving homelessness together in London. Thank you for your interest in our work.

 

Don’t Criminalize Homelessness; Do Criminalize Low Standards

205736624_153dbd3d20_bThe criminalization of homelessness is a scourge of societies across the globe. The general thought behind it goes something like this: People and/or their behaviours are anti-social and/or bad for our neighbourhood(s), therefore we will make criminal certain acts that we deem to be unwanted. This at face value makes sense, as it aligns with some of the core tenants of a justice system (ie. to get along as a society we need to enforce certain standards of behaviour and interaction), but let’s take a quick look at how this plays out in practice.

1) Making Survival Criminal

The overwhelming majority of people experiencing homelessness live in abject poverty, for example in Ontario most surviving on Ontario Works receive approximately $7,600 per year. With insufficient income to meet the most basic of needs, people turn to alternative means to supplement their income. This can include such activities as survival sex work or panhandling. Making these behaviours illegal then becomes a downstream response that does not alter the root issue of insufficient income. The punishment of these activities, such as ticketing those panhandling, rather adds layers of marginalization, making it more difficult for people to subsequently exit poverty and homelessness.

“Solutions” to panhandling such as this one out of Albuquerque http://www.koat.com/news/311-not-a-247-solution-to-panhandling-problems/34627678 are only band-aids or worse unless they address the root issue of inadequate income.

2) Punished for Basic Functions

People need to go to the bathroom, shower, and be intimate. Those who are without a home often have nowhere else to perform these functions but in the public sphere. This article from New York states it well, “unforgiving policies against low-level violations pushes people into the criminal justice system” http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/new-york-public-urination-debate-tests-broken-windows-theory-of-crime-1.3170821. Citing someone for public nudity or public urination who is trying their best to relieve themselves out of sight, but who has no other option, is nothing other than cruel.

3) Chased Away

The cruelest and most insidious of policies are those that are simply intended to drive away certain people from certain communities. This can be as basic as removing benches from public spaces, to laws that criminalize such things as lying down on a sidewalk (see: Tampa and Honolulu http://thinkprogress.org/economy/2014/07/16/3460553/homeless-criminalization-report/). Fort Lauderdale makes it really awfully obvious what they are going for in making it illegal to have personal possessions on public property. If you want to get really angry, read this article about NYPD police taking pictures of “quality-of-life offenses” like being homeless in public http://nypost.com/2015/08/10/cops-are-taking-pictures-of-bums-and-posting-them-online/.

These particular laws are the most cruel as they are based on nothing other than protecting the public from seeing someone in poverty. There is no harm being committed, and the result is absolutely nothing other than perhaps forcing people to move elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is exactly the goal. It is completely dehumanizing, heartless, and short-sighted.

However, with all that said, I would like to go out on a limb and suggest that I do support some homelessness-related laws that have been deemed by others as anti-homeless.

There has been much discussion about laws around providing food to people experiencing homelessness. This article from Mother Jones subtly highlights that there are differences in laws around public food sharing: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/11/90-year-old-florida-veteran-arrested-feeding-homeless-bans. Some laws are explicit about not providing food to to anyone in any way in public, whereas others stipulate criteria around food sharing safety. Most Canadian cities, with a strong public health system, fall under the latter. I believe that just because people are experiencing homelessness, it does not mean they should be provided with food that does not meet public food safety criteria. Now, I would note that this is said in the Canadian context where we don’t have individuals actually starving to death. My own research has shown that there is actually not a food access issue in London around poverty, but rather a food quality issue (as long as one is not facing mobility issues).

So, I believe that there should be laws against public sharing of food that does not meet food preparation and sharing safety criteria. If people are truly passionate about providing food to those experiencing poverty, then they can follow the simple criteria required to do so safely, or volunteer with an organization already doing so. Ignoring these standards is actually in itself dehumanizing.

I would make the same assertion around housing standards. Whenever there is a crisis in London that leads to people being very publicly de-housed, I see suggestions of solutions like tiny homes, tent cities, or shipping containers. When someone dies in a fire in substandard housing, some say that at least this housing is better than shelters or the street. Again, I believe that this perspective is based on the flawed logic that the housing standards that are good for me are perhaps too good for others. Instead, I believe that we have the resources in Canada to provide safe and adequate housing to all. We DO NOT want to return to the days of the slums and say that this is good enough for us (or for others, as the case may be). Rather, we need the political will to put the resources we have to work in order to provide adequate housing that is: safe, affordable, permanent, supported as needed, and of the individual’s choice.

This leads to the current, and possibly most controversial, concern: urban camping.

2929117132_8de2395d05_bAbbotsford, BC is in the midst of a court case where the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors or fighting for the right of people experiencing homelessness to camp in public spaces. In this article http://news.nationalpost.com/full-comment/tim-richter-fights-for-the-right-to-camp-will-harm-more-than-help-homeless-need-a-home-not-a-tent Tim Richter of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness captures well the tension of the issue. When it comes to the goal of ending homelessness, meaning helping people find home, a tent meets little to none of the criteria for home. In fact, a tent might be a dangerous, even harmful place for someone to live, even temporarily.

Now, this issue is a little more complex because unlike the food issue, the lack of housing alternatives is more of an immediate crisis with many people having simply no other option in the moment. However, I would again highlight that we should not settle for inadequate because our system is currently poorly funded and/or designed. Rather, we should create a context where no one has to choose urban camping as an option. I don’t believe that we should fine homeless people in the interim, but neither should we surrender to unsafe housing alternatives.

To summarize, I don’t think that we should criminalize people experiencing homelessness for their homelessness. However, I do think we should criminalize low standards that would put people who are homeless at risk. Those experiencing homelessness deserve the same right to safety as those with a home. I suspect that we surrender standards when we lose the vision and belief that we can end homelessness for all.

Quality Housing for All

Oxford StI was asked to give comment regarding a number of residential facilities being re-classed as care homes, which has financial implications for the managers of these facilities. Here are my thoughts:

As Chair of the London Homeless Coalition I was acutely impacted by the fire occurring on Oxford St that claimed the life of David McPherson. David was known to many of our member agencies, as were several of the other 30 residents living in accommodations meant for 12 people. This scenario shed light on a situation of which many of us were aware, but had taken limited action on: That many people exiting homelessness end up living in substandard accommodations. Through the London Housing Advisory Committee we have requested that the City consider these types of accommodations, low income housing aimed to assist persons with disabilities, in their current by-law review.

One of the considerations I often hear is that housing of any kind that is affordable is better than the alternative of street or shelter. With an adult on Ontario Works only receiving $376 per month of shelter, regular market rent housing is obviously out of the picture. This is further complicated in situations where individuals require some degree of support, in the case of Oxford St, some food was provided. From this perspective, additional by-laws and regulations that increase the cost of housing put housing further out of reach. However, it has long been my stance to resist this sort of logic.

It is my fundamental belief that all people who are homeless deserve to have housing that is safe, affordable, supported, quality, and permanent. I highlight the principles of safe and quality. I believe that in a Canadian context we have the resources and the skills to provide people with a minimum standard of housing regardless of their income limitations. Therefore, if standards of safety and quality increase the cost of housing, so to should assistance be increased to cover these costs.

Because of this stance, myself and the Coalition have supported landlord licensing, and support better by-law protection around care homes. We understand that this increases pressures and costs of those managing the homes, but with safety and quality as the priority, I would hope that our community could lobby together to address the increased costs.

I will not support moving people into substandard housing for the expediency of getting them off the street or out of shelter. Similarly, as many individuals who are homeless experience physical, mental, and developmental challenges, I support the rigorous creation and enforcement of high standards of care. To balance this, I would be a willing partner with our fellow community agencies in lobbying for the resources to make these standards realistic for all individuals, regardless of income source.

Our Humanity

A Tim Hortons worker pours water on a sleeping homeless man in the middle of winter.

A London Free Press reader in the comments suggests killing refugees being screened for Ebola.

My students speak of nurses suggesting patients with conditions contracted through intravenous drug use be left to die.

A man murders three neighbours over a parking dispute (and possibly motivated by hate).

How readily we forget how tentative is our own humanity. In de-humanizing others, we surrender our own humanity. I recently read “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. In a story of an escaped slave who murders her daughter rather than having that daughter returned to slavery, I was struck by the true story on which it was based. Margaret Garner was not initially charged with murder of her child as the law that allowed her and her daughter to be taken back into slavery as possessions, prevented a conviction of murder. Yet slavery, in defining African Americans as less than human, made us all inhumane. In the words of Booker T. Washington: “You can’t hold a person down without staying down with them.”

Those experiencing homelessness are fully human, fully valuable, and fully deserve our respect and kindness. Any time we choose to take away from this, we are giving away a portion of our own humanity, value, and right to be respected and treated kindly.

Human