Cell Phones for the Homeless?

This very well written, thoughtful, and detailed article on Mashable about homelessness and connectivity is well worth the read. It makes a number of valuable points about homelessness and smart phone connectivity with which I agree:

  1. Experiences of homelessness are often quite complexed, with housing status and where one is sleeping changing from night to night, defying simple definitions of what it means to be homeless.
  2. Phones can be tools by which people access resources to improve their status.
  3. The public can be uncomfortable with a homeless person having a phone, which is still considered a luxury by many.
  4. Having a phone can help one feel ‘normal’.
  5. One can still have a strong sense of self in spite of currently being unhoused.

This article raises the question for those of us who work in the sector of whether providing smart phones is indeed the intervention to help end homelessness? We sought to answer this question in a study of 212 individuals currently experiencing homelessness.

Here’s an interesting graph to start, that helps frame the discussion of why I am actually not holding much hope for this is an intervention:

Internet Use

1) The first thing that we noted is that there is a drastic divide between users and non-users of the internet. The majority either use it daily or not at all, with far fewer being intermittent users.

2) The second thing we heard is that for those who want access, getting it isn’t that difficult. Whether it’s free wifi downtown, in coffee shops, or at agencies, or computer access within agencies, or the most common, computer access in public libraries, people are able to get online when they want to. The only significant barrier to this was those living in social housing with physical limitations.

3) The third thing we heard is that in terms of accessing services, there is always an in-person alternative. So social agencies aren’t setting up programs that are only available online, you can always go and see a worker for assistance.

4) The fourth thing we heard is that internet access can actually make things worse for some individuals. In particular, youth talked about negative social capital, the fact that their social networks often were a detriment to their well-being, rather than helped them do better. All that internet access provided was more frequent and thorough access to this negative social capital. Youth talked about deleting their social media accounts as part of a process of exiting the street.

5) Our overall finding was that there was no statistically significant causal relationship between accessing the internet more and doing better physically, mentally, or socially. This means that although for some individuals, like the man in the story, their cell phone is their lifeline, giving all people experiencing homelessness cell phones and data plans might not be the best use of resources for ending homelessness.

Crappy Little Homes for the Homeless

Mini homes homelessIt seems like on almost a weekly basis I get an email, Facebook message, or Twitter link from someone thoughtful who says, “Hey Abe, did you see this?”  What then follows is a link to a story about building mini homes for the homeless. And there are a lot of these going on, almost all from the U.S.

There’s this one.

And this one.

This one promoted by someone pretty big in the homeless serving community.

This fancy infographic one.

And there are many others. It seems that the mini homes for the homeless is a pretty popular movement. And I get where they are coming from with this. If the idea is that homelessness is about lack of shelter, and we need quick solutions for shelters, then giving away tents, cardboard boxes, or building wooden boxes is a form of solution. The problem is we’ve been here before, it was before the mid 1960’s, and they were called slums.

The infographic idea actually sets up the issue very well, it speaks to the growth in need, how homelessness is very much about poverty and the inability to meet basic needs, and contains all kind of neat ideas to integrate such as environmental sustainability and food security. My issue with all of these is not the intent, it’s that we can and we are doing better in addressing homelessness.  As I mentioned recently, addressing homelessness is about ending homelessness. Crappy little homes is not what we envision when we envision ending homelessness, it is just a shift of people into nouveau-hip slums with prettier colours.

Instead, we have the resources, expertise, and motivation to truly move all people into a dignified, adequate, and affordable home. It is going to take some work, but lets not reduce the quality of our vision for the sake of expediency.

But what good did he do?

A very brief background for those readers outside of London, Ontario, our former Mayor has been charged with breach of trust, fraud, and uttering a forged document and is being sentenced today. This is related to a payment of a Government cheque to cover the deposit of his son’s wedding reception. This particular tweet stood out to me from the sentencing:

Justice Thomas said he reviewed all the letters. Looked for evidence of good works instead of status, reputation.

As part of the defence, the former Mayor’s lawyer submitted 45 letters attesting to his good qualities and character from local citizens. Justice Thomas was very savvy in pointing out that certain jobs afford us opportunities to look good, and that the letters attested that the former Mayor was good at his job. Ribbon cuttings, funding announcements, and quick and personal replies to correspondence should be taken-for-granted components of the work of a public official. What Justice Thomas was saying, was yes,

But what good did he do?

What did he contribute outside of his work life, of his own time and energy, what lasting impact will he have? This struck me because it is a question that I constantly ask myself, and I think we should all ask of ourselves. When the inevitable occurs and we die, what small difference will we leave behind in the world? Yes, being good at our job will mean lots of people at our retirement party, and raising our children well will help set them up for their own successes, but is that all we desire to achieve?

Whether a Judge asks of your lawyer, or in a more likely case, a friend or loved one eulogizes you, what good will they say you did?


What “Ending Homelessness” Means

LDN_CAReSMore and more the narrative around addressing homelessness is finally changing from one of “addressing homelessness” to “ending homelessness”. This is an important shift as our language establishes the outcomes we expect and anticipate. So much of our work from the 1980s until today has been band-aid solutions, providing comfort measures to those while homeless, food and shelter, yet has not necessarily addressed the root issue – lack of a home.

But indeed, you now see this shift in the language of service providers, funders, and governments. Plans to end homelessness, programs that end homelessness, and solutions focused around housing and housing first. This is a common goal and I believe it is a realistic one, and the right one to target. The issue is, what exactly do we mean when we speak of “ending homelessness”. Recall, of course, that the definition of ‘homeless’ itself is quite complex. We can all agree that someone sleeping under a bridge is homeless, and most understand shelters as still being homeless, but what about couch surfing? What about living with one’s pimp? Therefore, when we assess whether homelessness has been ended, we need to be clear what type of homelessness we are talking about.

For the most part, when we are talking about ending homelessness, we are talking about eliminating rough sleeping, reducing shelter usage (particularly chronic usage), and making affordable housing with supports widely available, reducing other forms of temporary stay such as cells or hospital. This idea of ending homelessness is well represented in the recent article of the work of London CAReS in London, Ontario. The article speaks to moving 100 individuals from states of chronic or persistent homelessness to being housed, permanently. This still requires high levels of service and support, but is far less costly than cells, hospital, or shelter. Also, most of these individuals were not rough sleepers, but were still considered homeless by any recognized Canadian definition.

This is why I believe ending homelessness is possible. Yes, we will always need emergency shelters as a point of transition for people who are de-housed, but these should only be needed for a few hours or days of other, more desirable (and less expensive) forms of affordable and supported housing are available.

Fair Elections Act

I have been called as a witness before the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs at Parliament in Ottawa this coming Wednesday to speak to Bill C-23, known as the ‘Fair Elections Act’.  The following are my prepared comments (I am allowed 5 minutes).

Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs, Wednesday April 9, 2014

Bill C-23, An Act to amend the Canada Elections Act and other Acts and to make consequential amendments to certain Acts

Witness Statement – Abram Oudshoorn, RN, PhD, Chair London Homeless Coalition

Members of the Committee, thank you for this opportunity to appear before you to discuss changes to the Canada Elections Act proposed under Bill C-23.  I present to you today on behalf of the London Homeless Coalition, and the London Community Advocates Network.  However, my comments also draw heavily on my experience working front-line as a nurse with people experiencing homelessness at the London InterCommunity Health Centre, and on my current position as an Assistant Professor in the Arthur Labatt Family School of Nursing where my research and teaching focus on the intersections of poverty, housing, and health.

As a nurse researcher I spend much of my time exploring health policies, but also concern myself with policies related to the broader social determinants of health. Policy analysis involves exploring both the intended and unintended consequences of current or proposed legislation. One of the questions asked of unintended consequences is whether the proposed legislation will adversely impact a particular segment of the population or people group. I am here today to express my concern that the changes proposed in Bill C-23 have the potential to significantly impair the ability to vote, a fundamental component of participating in democracy, for a distinct people group, those experiencing homelessness.

There are two brief pictures I hope to paint for you to in some small way bring forward the realities of Canadian citizens who are experiencing homelessness: the maintaining and obtaining of identification while homeless, and a typical election day in and around agencies who serve the homeless in London, Ontario.

Maintaining and obtaining identification is one of the key challenges faced by people experiencing homelessness in terms of barriers both to exiting homelessness and exiting poverty in general. Both qualitative and quantitative research studies have continually highlighted the rapid decline of possessing current and accurate identification starting from the date of first homelessness. The longer one is homeless, the exponentially less likely one is to have current and accurate identification. This particularly impacts those living with an active mental health challenge, as well as women fleeing domestic violence. How is identification lost? It, unfortunately, is frequently stolen along with one’s personal possessions, such as if someone’s back-pack or wallet is stolen. It is also often lost, due to the chaos of a homeless life. And it is also at times left behind, if a person is unable to return to a shelter where their belongings are stored for example, or if women fleeing violence are unable to access their possessions.

Once identification is lost, the process to replace it is labourious, expensive, and long. Individuals often have to start right back at connecting with their community of birth to obtain a birth certificate, then wait four to eight weeks for this to come in before accessing the next piece of identification. This process is also a challenge as one requires a permanent address throughout. Fortunately, many agencies that serve people experiencing homelessness are used to and well-equipped to serve as a permanent address.  Unfortunately, due again to the chaos in some people’s lives, the process of replacing lost identification is often interrupted, and many times pieces of ID sit unopened at agencies.

Therefore, on any given day, a significant amount of people experiencing homelessness in Canada find themselves without identification.

This is a challenge, but historically in London we have been able to rise to the challenge. Health and social service agencies in London mobilize every election day to ensure, as much as possible, that citizens who want to vote are able to in spite of their housing status and identification challenges. This community-wide mobilization focuses firstly on ensuring that individuals are using an agency such as London InterCommunity Health Centre on all their identification as a permanent address, and would thus obtain a Voter ID card. For those who have not received a Voter ID card by the election day, the next level of mobilization focuses on provisions under 143 (3) of the Canada Elections Act, known colloquially as the vouching system. As you are aware, under this section of the Act, those with proper identification are able to vouch for one other citizen within their polling area. So, workers across health and social agencies are be made aware of these provisions, and people self-identify who lived within the polling areas where most people experiencing homelessness are located in London. When a person experiencing homelessness but without identification enters an agency and expressed an interest in voting (facilitated by “Ask us how to vote!” signs), they are connected with someone who can vouch for them who accompanies them to the polling station. This is made simpler by places like the InterCommunity Health Centre serving as polling stations.

So, this gives you a small picture of the hard-work and efforts of the citizens of London to ensure all people, rich or poor, have access to vote in the election if they so desired.

Under Bill C-23, the provisions of 143 (3) are removed. This will present a very real challenge to people experiencing homelessness across Canada, and disenfranchise them from a significant part of the democratic process. Unfortunately, full identification replacement is simply not achievable, although you can be assured that the agencies try, due to cost and the timelines involved in replacement. This means that if Bill C-23 proceeds as written, a particular subset of the population will be adversely impacted. In any policy analysis, this is a significant red flag.

Thank you for your time.

Committee Room

What’s with the Rock

The opening of the London Homeless Memorial generated some negative press.  However, I received a message through facebook that serves to remind me why we took this project on in the first place.  I have redacted any identifying information.

“Hello Abe, sorry to write you on facebook, but the UWO server appears to be down, and I am far too impatient to wait for that.

My name is xxxxxxxx, and I am a former resident of London, but am currently living in xxxxxxxxx. A friend of mine sent me the recent article about the unveiling of the monument dedicated to those who have lost their lives to homelessness in London. I’m sure you have received many messages of people telling you their stories and you know what you’ve done is good thing, but I wouldn’t be able to rest of I didn’t send you my own story and personally thank you.

In 2005, a man’s lifeless body was found on a bench in xxxxxx Park. He was identified and my phone rang, and my life was forever changed. The man was my father, and after five years of life on the streets, my father succumbed to the toll it takes on your body (especially at 50, he died 5 days short of his 50th birthday). My dad being homeless was just something we accepted, and moved on with our lives. We still had a father/daughter relationship, still met for coffee, still played guitar in the park. He still loved me and let me know every chance he got, I was still “Daddy’s little girl”, and thought the world of him. Of course I worried about him daily and nightly, and of course I wanted to change his situation, but at 16, I felt helpless, and just learned to let my dad be who he wanted to be.

My dad was bi-polar, and was in a very reclusive state, and I had lived through that before, I knew with every low there would be a high, I knew that after this down, he would come up again, it had to go up. I never, ever thought that my super hero dad, who proved time and again that he could do anything, would die homeless and alone on a bench. In the years following my dad’s death (it was just the 8th anniversary), I have felt a lot of resentment to anyone who would have passed him and spat negative remarks, or turned up their nose at him. I have felt guilt for not helping, as well as animosity towards the people of London for not helping. I know the programs in place in London are great, and I know that a lot is being done, but I continue to feel that my dad was left out.

The recent monument that has been erected makes me feel like there are people that do know the tragedies that happen, the lives that are lost, people that care about those that have died alone. The monument is not just for those who are gone, but their family members that are still here, with the guilt and sadness felt for their deaths. My family couldn’t afford a tombstone for my dad’s burial, and I feel now, that with your help, my father has something that was put up in his memory, something put up with dignity and respect to honour a fallen superhero.

With great feelings of gratefulness,


London Homeless Memorial

Silly Feminists

I digress from my regular focus on homelessness and housing to rant just a little bit about the Canadian national anthem.

You may have heard it being proposed to change the line “all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”.  Much ink has been spilled and Rex Murphy got cute about it on the National, to invoke our patriotism and stop this travesty.  I heard it expressed yesterday that this is just another silly feminist cause.

But here’s the thing, “all thy sons command” isn’t even the original version.  That line is a 1913 edit of the original “thou dost in us command”.  Because that’s what we do with the anthem, we update it.  What is being suggested now is that the update to use “sons” rather than something gender neutral (like the original) was less than ideal, and could use another tweak.  Because the anthem is with us to stay, so will need tweaking as language evolves.

As for “silly feminists”, what’s so silly about people thinking that your life trajectory and income-earning ability should not be determined by what’s under your underwear.  Lots of people think that…you know, people like me.  To me, the travesty is that Murphy and others use the term ‘feminist’ like the f-word, to disparage the efforts of those pushing for equity in our society.

If these anthem traditionalists want to be so avoidant of change, why don’t they sing the original version?  Because, of course, that would just be silly.

Employment Greater Than Housing?

Hierarchy of NeedsThis article from CBC News Kitchener-Waterloo speaks to city councilor Sean Strickland’s suggestion that we should re-direct resources from affordable housing to a job skill match program.  His rationale is that in the context of both high social assistance case loads and job postings going unfilled, focusing more on employment than housing will push the needle from managing homelessness to ending homelessness.  Strickland also notes the downloading of housing services from the feds and the province to municipalities, at the same time as resources are less available.

I both agree and disagree with Councilor Strickland.  I do agree that the only ultimate way to end poverty is to obtain employment.  Even if one were to access every benefit possible on social assistance, including disability, it does not bring you above the poverty line.  Conversely, full-time employment at minimum wage will.  Therefore, the ultimate and solitary self-sufficient end to poverty is through gainful employment.

That said, there are a few concerns I have with proposing a shift of resources from housing to employment.  The first is that individuals experiencing homelessness are often several steps down the hierarchy of needs from gainful employment.  People experiencing concurrent addictions and mental health challenges will have difficulties being successful through an application process.  People who have been homelessness for an extended period of time also often carry their poverty in their face, and do not fair well in job interviews.  As well, the low literacy rates among people experiencing homelessness are well documented, so many are not employment ready.

The second concern I have is about playing the determinants of health off against each other, as if we must choose either employment or housing.  Employment will have populist appeal as it fits a vision of removing those undeserving off assistance off the public roll.  However, what housing first has taught us is that stable housing is a necessary prerequisite for enhancing one’s current situation.  Therefore, to expect people to obtain stable employment when they have unstable housing is not necessarily productive.  This is not to say that employment will not benefit people, it’s to say that employment cannot be considered without understanding the broader challenges faced by an individual.

It’s Our Humanity We Lose

Homeless CampIt was revealed yesterday that workers with the City of Abbotsford, BC intentionally spread manure on a camping area used by people experiencing homelessness near a Salvation Army shelter.  The city manager has accepted responsibility for the action, apologized, and promised to rectify the situation by cleaning the site.  This is an obvious case of trying to respond to a concern without addressing the root issues.

What is most dismaying about this story is how much it represents how we dehumanize those experiencing homelessness.  This conceptualization sees them as a nuisance that needs to be driven out or driven away.  The lengths we go to in doing so often include legislation, but also include this kind of despicable act, and it’s not the first time.  We can demonize the individual city manager who was responsible for this decision, but how in our own communities do we define some as undesirable and attempt to drive them away?

What is suggested around this story is that it dehumanizes those experiencing homelessness.  I agree with this assessment, but I want to add something as well.  People experiencing homelessness are our neighbours, our friends, our family…part of our community.  They are us.  In dehumanizing those experiencing homelessness, all of humanity is lessened.  It is our humanity we are taking away.