Saturday, May 23, 2009

No Home, No Job and No Hope - Time to Act

We have a strange attitude towards homelessness. We are all clearly against it and think that something must be done, but rarely do anything ourselves.

Municipal governments are against it, have no authority or mandate or funds dedicated to it, but build affordable housing anyway with taxpayers money, then ask regional and national governments to support them. Regional and national governments provide funds for affordable housing, both to municipalities and to charitable organizations, and some affordable housing gets built, but homelessness persists.

A true example of a vicious circle.

One cause of homelessness is our complete inability as a society to know what to do with those who are mentally ill. We used to have hospitals and centres where those troubled within themselves were kept and occasionally cared for. While sometimes the treatments provided were more experiments with drugs, power cords and music, sometimes they also made a difference. They were not pretty places – I used to work in one and, believe me, they were not arts centres or blissful heavens of tranquility – but at least they gave those not able to care for themselves shelter, warmth and food. When these places were deemed cruel and inhospitable and “care in the community” became the mantra of the do-gooders, the patients were turned loose onto communities without the “care” provision. They are one source of homeless people.

A second are those who, for whatever reason, have turned to drink and drugs as a way to cope with the travails of their lives. At some point, the drink or the drugs have taken over their lives and it has led to them not being able to afford or sustain shelter. The street becomes their home.

A third, smaller but nonetheless disconcerting group, is the runaway. Teenagers who can no longer tolerate the impertinence of their parents or the rivalry with siblings or the abuse from peers run away to find a new space in which they can find out who they are and secure solace in the anonymity of a new start. Rarely does this lead to the solution they sought; often it leads to abuse, prostitution, degradation and poverty. The street is both their prison and their lost hope.

A final group, now fast growing, is those who are victims of the recession. The disposed, the desperate, in indebted. Some seek shelter with family and friends, but eventually their network is exhausted and they sleep in their car or van, in parks or on the street. Some are working poor – holding down a part-time job, but unable to afford a home or have to trade food and clothes for shelter.

Some of the homeless try to get out of the cycle of poverty – but the number of working poor and homeless is growing. Some find homes, but cannot keep them and find themselves back on the streets weeks or months later, even more desperate than they were before – they tasted what the future could be like, but the taste soured and became an acid despair, sometimes in more ways than one. Others do make it out of street-sleeping and start to pull themselves together, but they need support and constant reinforcement to sustain their new life. It is not easy, however it turns out.

In any major city in North America, homelessness is a challenge in search of a solution. Each day, good people with strong commitments work to ease the pain of homelessness, to provide temporary shelter and solace and do what they can. But still they come. Each month, politicians at all levels renew their commitments and speak eloquently about solutions and support, provide some funds and make a difference to a few people. But still they come.

It is time we tackled this problem. A stimulus package aimed at solving homelessness in Canada – rebuilding and restoring our mental health system with sensible medium term care and treatment to tackle those on the street because the care in the community is not there; new counselling services and support centres for teenagers who cannot cope with their lives, their parents and their crumbling social world; new approaches to drink and drugs; new work opportunities in social programs and public services to provide some work opportunities; a concerted effort to make Canada a home-full country.

Now that would be something.


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