Friday, September 03, 2010

Have years of dislocation taught us nothing about people living homeless?

What’s left to say on the subject of homelessness? We’ve studied the issue from every angle for almost 20 years now. We’ve lamented it, lived it and produced many, many reports on it, all urging immediate action.
And yet at the end of the day, we’re still standing here wringing our hands - this time over conditions on the Pandora boulevard, but ultimately about a recurring problem we’ve pushed around the city for a long time now.
Once it was the neighbourhood around Holiday Court. Then Speed Street. Then Fernwood, and Cormorant.  Now it’s Pandora. A couple years from now - who knows? If we still haven’t comprehended by then that the solution is to fix the problem and not just move it along, bet on a new hot spot somewhere in the city.
Don’t get me wrong - good things are happening around homelessness. We’ve come a long way in understanding the complex problems and societal changes at the root of modern-day homelessness, a relatively recent phenomenon in every western country. We generally get that things happened to create homelessness in Canada, and things will have to happen to get us out from under it. 
And we’re doing some of those things. A partial list: Cool Aid’s brand-new shelter and services on Ellice Street, opening this fall. Pacifica’s Clover Place housing development. Woodwynn Farms. Longer hours for Our Place.  A terrific new health centre. The fledgling Streets to Homes program. Outreach teams focused on crisis intervention and stability.
But I can see with my own eyes anytime I drive along Pandora that despite the wins, we haven’t yet found a solution for a small and very specific group of people living on the streets. With problems too big to hide, they’re the visible face of homelessness, and lightning rods for virtually all of the community’s wrath and indignation around the issue.
The makeup of the group changes regularly, depending on whose addiction has worsened, whose meds are working, whose families are still clinging on, who’s headed for jail or just got out. Everybody’s got their own story to tell, but they all lead down.  
The group creates big problems wherever it settles. Petty crime rises, as does chaos, garbage, public health hazard, visible drug use and trafficking. Complaints to police increase. Media stories ensue, and businesses operating nearby feel the impact on their bottom line as customers shift away from the area.
I first met a version of the group at Holiday Court, a little motel on Hillside Avenue near Douglas that was the hot spot of the day back in 2001. As is the pattern, frustrated residents and businesses in the area tolerated the problems for longer than you might expect, but eventually cranked up the pressure until police moved people along.
Happy days for neighbours of Holiday Court, but not so good for the string of neighbourhoods that followed. These days, even a rundown motel with rain leaking through the plaster or a fleabag apartment in Fernwood looks like luxury compared to the full-on homelessness the group now lives with.
There was once about 30 people in this public and chaotic group, then 70 by the time they’d shifted to Cormorant Street. Now, it’s around 100. It’s obvious we’re losing ground on this particular front.
Why is that? Let me count the ways: Severe addiction with no ability to access treatment. Severe mental illness with no place to go. People so lonely that even a war zone feels friendly. People so poor and broken that they have to live near the free stuff.
Mental handicaps. Brain injuries. Poor social skills. A system of policing and justice that doesn’t work when people have nothing to lose. A splintered region that doesn’t yet get that homelessness is everybody’s problem.
Put it all together and it’s a recipe for bedlam, and immensely frustrating for all involved. I’ve long thought that someone should just put money on the table and hold a contest to come up with solutions for reducing the friction over this small group. What could we do differently - and immediately?
The transient group is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to homelessness, but their presence shapes the community dialogue.  It polarizes the debate. It leaves us thinking that nothing is working even when it is, because the rubble of these people’s lives is so obvious.
We can do better than just pushing the mess and chaos into another neighbourhood. We can fix this problem. We have to.

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