Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the All Our Sisters first national conference on women and homelessness (www.alloursister.ca). Reviewing the poster boards I saw one of the best examples of political advocacy around homelessness that I have seen in a while. A group called ‘Homeless in Saskatoon‘ created Christmas cards to be sent to their Member of Parliament. As you can see below, the cards had the tag line “From our home to yours” and featured pictures of rough sleeping accommodations. A very powerful message, and one we just might have to copy here in London.
If you are not familiar with TED Talks, they are basically an opportunity for anyone who has something interesting to say, to share it with the world. The following talk is from last year:
There are a lot of things going on in this video that are worth reflecting on, but most importantly, I thought that it’s a good lead off to talk about the idea that homelessness can happen to anyone. This is a conceptualization that I hear often, and the idea is that it enhances empathy in public perceptions if we can see that we are all at risk of experiencing life circumstances that would cause us to be homeless.
I believe that this is a helpful idea, and with my students I do share some stories that illustrate how even the wealthiest and most popular can lose it all. However, I also believe that this can’t be our only narrative, as it hides the larger story. For most people who experience homelessness, it is simply a step onto a lower stair of a life of poverty. If you were to chart of curve of highest lifetime income and homelessness, there would be exponentially more people who have experienced homelessness on the lowest levels of lifetime income. And, this isn’t just for the individual themself, but often reflects family histories of poverty, experienced as a cycle.
Becky’s story is meaningful, to show the limitations of our ‘social safety net’, but her former skills were a means to assist her rapidly out of homelessness. Few who are homeless have access to the same resources. So, the ‘it can happen to anyone’ narrative is helpful for creating empathy, but we can’t stop there. We also need to confront poverty head-on of we are to confront homelessness.
At the “Rethinking Homelessness” conference in Montreal, Dennis Culhane spoke about the successes in the US around housing first models, and rapid prevention. One thing that he mentioned in prevention programs is that we have to be careful of ‘moral hazard’. The way he used the term, was around individuals utilizing resources to assist the homeless who didn’t truly qualify. Or, the idea that programs that are too accessible will be taken advantage of (moral hazard is more frequenlty conceptualized in this context as people not taking as much personal initiative to prevent challenges if they have a safety net).
In a nutshell, he was expressing that we need to have strict boundaries around a programs so that they are not misused or over-used. This is an idea that was tossed around in my work as a nurse at a drop-in health centre for homeless persons, that we need to be careful to screen out people from using our services who don’t qualify. So, for example, if we give out emergency food, we need to be sure that people aren’t just walking in off the street and asking for food, even though they are housed.
I believe that this term is problematic, and reflective of a certain ideology that I am not comfortable with. The idea here is that there are a bunch of free-loading people around just waiting to take advantage of social services. However, it has been our experience that those who access our services that are not officially homeless clients of the health centre are still those who are at risk of homelessness. Therefore, we don’t mind if they use our services, as it is actually a form of prevention. Perhaps this food, or socks, or shower, or whatever, is a piece that will help them never officially qualify for our programs.
That said, with limited budgets for programs tartgeted at specific populations (ie. people who are experiencing homelessness), we do need to be intelligent about how we use our resources. But I believe that this actually reflects another discussion around how awkward it is to define programs around housing status, which is such a fluid thing.
I had the privilege of presenting at an event called Ignite London. This is a trend happening in cities around the world, similar to TED Talks. However, at an Ignite event you have only 5 minutes, and 20 slides that are pre-timed. The idea is to give an inspirational talk, but make it quick.
I took the opportunity to address a question that I hear often, “Why is there homelessness in London, Ontario?” I presented my belief that the variation in statistics around homelessness from country to country demonstrates that homelessness is a policy issue, and that if we had comprehensive enough policies, we could completely eradicate homelessness. Note, my email address is wrong in the presentation and should read firstname.lastname@example.org
This past week I was in Kingston, Ontario preventing at the !nstigate Anti-Poverty conference (you can see my presentation here). On Friday at lunch the conference organizers suggested we go and see a protest being put on by the catholic sisters at Kingston City Hall. I was intrigued, so went to check it out.
The Sisters of St. Vincent de Paul have been standing at City Hall every Friday from 12:15 to 12:45 since 1995 when Harris cut social assistance rates. They stand with signs protesting poverty in their community. At the same time, the sisters provide a soup kitchen called Martha’s Table in Kingston. They consider the protest to be an essential supplement to the hands-on work, balancing service and political action.
I was struck by the length the protest, and their dedication to the cause. Two of the sisters I talked to had been with it since the very beginning, and made it out most weeks. There was also a great selection of other people who were taking time out of their lunch to join in. Some might mock based on the lack of success, but I think that if we surrender when things don’t go our way, there would be no one to push the anti-poverty agenda. I have been involved in health care with homeless people for only 5 1/2 years, I hope that in 10 years time I will still be showing the same dedication these wonderful ladies have shown.
“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated in our common life.” – Jane Addams