Saturday, December 09, 2006

A recipe for creating homelessness
Dec. 7, 2006

I don’t think the word “homelessness” was something that our communities ever thought of up until a few years ago. Sure, there were always a few homeless people. But nobody foresaw a time when homelessness would become more or less of a permanent condition for thousands of British Columbians.
Signs of it sneaking up on us were evident in Times-Colonist stories of the early 1990s if we’d paid more attention. First came the warnings from the front lines that more and more people were struggling. Then the business community brought its concerns to the table, starting in 1996 when then-mayor Bob Cross and his council took a hard line against “aggressive” panhandlers.
And here we are 10 years on. Entire homeless families now alternate between cheap motels in the winter and campsites in the summer, and at least twice as many broken people with nowhere else to go now live on downtown streets. For kids growing up on the edges of homelessness, it means constantly changing schools, losing contact with friends, and living a heartbeat away from imminent disaster. That’s a very hard way to grow up into a happy, healthy adult.
How did we end up here?
It started with short-term, political social-policy decisions made with nary a thought to the tremendous long-term impacts. In the 1980s, we opened the doors of our giant institutions, and we pushed thousands of people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities out into the community. We promised community support and failed to deliver. Then we decimated welfare spending and quit building social housing.
More significant than those missteps, however, is the fact that we’ve done virtually nothing to rectify them. The problems have worsened before our very eyes, and we have carried on as if blind to the increasingly visible signs of damage in our communities. We appear to have convinced ourselves that the social problems we’re grappling with have nothing to do with years of massive and poorly thought-out cuts to social services.
In fact, we often talk about homelessness these days not as evidence of our mistakes, but as something that just might be inevitable - part of the growing pains of becoming a city. As if the only choice we have around homelessness is to learn to live with it.
To walk the downtown at any time of the day or night is to see the results of all that non-strategy and neglect.
On the left, a long string of impossibly overloaded shopping carts parked precariously along the sidewalk near Streetlink. Up the street, countless downtown doorways and cubbyholes put to use as makeshift winter campsites. Across the bridge, park bushes along the Gorge pushed into service by illegal tenters.
But we don’t have to accept that. Housing people is not beyond our capability. We can choose to act.
Money will have to be spent, yes, but certainly no more than what it’s costing us in health care, lost earning potential, policing, and revolving-door court appearances for B.C.’s struggling underclass. That’s not even counting the economic impact on our downtowns of continuing to do nothing. Or the inevitable rise in communicable disease, crime and conflict.
That we’ve stayed this course for more than a decade is discouraging enough, but carrying on any longer can only lead to ever-darker places. The scenes that we’re seeing daily on our downtown streets would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. How far are we willing to go?
It’s about housing. It’s about doing what needs to be done to help people, whatever their challenges. It’s about income assistance, which has become a punishing and desperately mingy program that those with the most barriers can’t even access. If the people living on our streets are even on income assistance - and a whole lot aren’t - they’re expected to get by on as little as $180 a month. Nobody could do that, least of all somebody with a brain injury, drug addiction, untreated mental illness or otherwise massive problem.
It’s not about feeling sorry for people like that, although a little empathy wouldn’t hurt. It’s more about seeing where erroneous social policy has taken us, and taking action. We need to build housing, provide subsidies, look for innovative concepts. We need to acknowledge addiction. Families need to be supported and kids need to grow up with a community around them.
The hard-liners will tell you that nobody was around to mollycoddle them when they were learning to make their own way in the world. They prefer the “tough love” solution, which appears to boil down to cutting services in hopes that those who can’t live without them either die off quickly or move along. But so much has changed in B.C. in the last 30 years that there’s simply no comparing then and now.
The economy. Family structure. Our towns. Our connection to community. Everything’s different. The structures that prevented homelessness in years gone by have collapsed, exacerbated by relentless cuts to social services.
Cause and effect. In the end, it’s as simple as that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Homelessness. It would be so easy to abolish if the majority of people who are homeless really were.

Jody, you are a great writer. You know how to make hearts wring with empathy, fear, and the gamut of emotions that fill people when they read about sad things. Yet you don't have answers, and you only tell a small part of a bigger story.

I find the subject of homelessness disturbing. Not because it exists, but because it exists despite the fact there are jobs going begging.

In Port Alberni, McDonalds Restaurants closed their drive through after midnight for months because they couldn't find enough people to man the cashiers or to mop the floors. The jobs still go begging. Yet Port Alberni has it's share of homeless people. I visited two of them several weeks ago, camped under a stair surrounded by cardboard and cloth. I brought them a hot meal - and was disappointed when I learned they were homeless and didn't want help. They were offered a job, they didn't want one. They were offered a place to sleep, but they didn't want to stay at "one of those places".... a clean establishment with beds, a shower, and a support worker that would help them navigate the government red tape.

I was dumbfounded to discover that there are some homeless who don't want help. I was shocked when I learned some homeless people have decided they won't work for $8 an hour.

And so I have come to learn that there are some who are homeless who have no skills, who lack the ability to look after themselves, and who are left to fend for themselves with nothing in their pockets -- the ones who should be housed in facilities like Riverview...and there are some homeless who choose the lifestyle or refuse to be helped, and many who do not wish to work.

So I give up feeling sorry for them, the whole lot. It's beyond me. Sad as it might be, I've come to realize that half of the homeless don't have to be homeless... for their own reasons, for their own choices, they are where they are by their own actions and choices in life.

I give up caring or wanting to help.

And so it probably is with many in this province.

I've had a merry christmas, and they could too. So I will sleep well tonight.

But you have identified the type of homeless who SHOULD be helped with or without their permission. The ones with mental or other health issues. Let's just do it, and let the others be.