Friday, September 25, 2009

Government knows how to end homelessness - and it's not arrest

These are times when all ideas need to be on the table, so I’m trying to restrain my impulse to go berserko at the B.C. government for thinking that you can manage homelessness by arresting people.
But really, it’s enough to break your heart. All the effort and thought that has gone into this issue in recent years, all the proven solutions and strategies pulled together by brilliant and informed minds right here in B.C. - and this is what the province has taken away from that? Say it isn’t so.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman has been in the news this week talking about giving police the power to arrest people who refuse to go to shelters over the winter. His early plans turned shelter staff into jailors by forcing people to stay inside, but now he says police would just deliver people to shelters and leave it up to them whether they walked through the door.
The argument will likely play well with many of us in the comfortable class, who shudder at the thought of being out on a cold, wet winter night. Who can blame us for presuming that anyone who’d choose to sleep outside at night must be certifiably insane?
But the truth is that there are all kinds of sane reasons for choosing the streets over a shelter bed.
Sometimes, it’s as simple as not being able to bear the thought of lying on a mat in a big room with 70 or 80 other troubled souls trying to make it through the night in noisy, restless fashion. Or about having no place to leave your cart without all your worldly belongings being stolen by the morning, or another night of waiting in line outside the shelter just to find out there are no beds left, by which time all the good outdoor sleeping spots are long gone.
It’s about having a spouse and wanting to sleep like a couple, or having a pet that you can’t possibly leave outside alone in the cold. When our region’s “cold wet weather” protocol kicks in - and believe me, it’s damn cold and wet before that happens - only one adult emergency shelter, the one at St. John the Divine, welcomes couples and pets.
Then there’s a whole other group of resisters with severe addictions, whose sleep/wake cycles are so completely out of whack that the idea of lying down quietly at night for eight hours isn’t even an option.
Some have mental-health issues that keep them out of shelters, although not many in my experience, and certainly not enough to give Coleman the quick street cleanup he’s envisaging. There’s also a tiny group who would actually choose to live outside no matter what: modern-day hermits, maybe 32 people in all in our region based on the findings of the expert panel that worked on the 2007 Mayor’s Task Force on Homelessness.
Challenging issues, yes. But not insurmountable, as Coleman well knows. The City of Vancouver has had amazing success with such populations using a new kind of shelter piloted late last year. None of it has required arresting people.
The goal of the project was to lure resisters inside by providing shelter with a difference - locked spaces for carts, couples and pets allowed, 24-hour TV room to accommodate the sleepless, the dignity of booking another night before you left the shelter rather than having to line up much later in the day and hope for the best.
The empty buildings used for the shelters were pulled together quickly and on the cheap, with an operating cost of roughly $1.5 million for the three-month pilot. All were located in areas where people were already sleeping.
The plan worked like a charm. More than 500 people who’d previously refused to use shelters came inside within a few days of the shelters opening last December.
A similar solution for the 100 to 150 people in our region who avoid shelters would cost just $750,000 to cover five months of cold, wet weather. Much could be accomplished merely by extending Our Place drop-in hours over the winter and expanding the Cool Aid winter shelter that’s run out of St. John the Divine church.
The vast majority of people on our streets desperately want shelter and housing. But that’s not to say they’re prepared to give up everything of themselves just for one night out of the cold. Arresting people “for their own good” is something that a civil society does with the utmost of care, and only after all other options are exhausted - something that’s most definitely not the case in B.C.
You know what works, Mr. Coleman. Please don’t waste any more time and tax dollars on a plan that fails on every level.

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