Monday, August 14, 2017

Homelessness is still a problem. Gee, go figure

Ten years ago now, I was part of a major initiative to address homelessness in Victoria. The Mayor's Task Force on Breaking the Cycle of Mental Illness, Addictions and Homelessness brought together some of the most informed, passionate people in the country to look into the issue of people living on our streets and what needed to be done about it. 

In four intense months, the task force put together a comprehensive report, packed with thoughtful, meaningful research, strategies and findings. What lands people into homelessness in these modern times turned out to be quite a complex series of things, starting with people's own personal crises, health issues and inability (for all kinds of reasons) to manage the major problems and stressors of their lives, and then deepening into shifting priorities at all levels of government, systemic failures, flawed decision-making, disconnects and deep funding cuts across the existing system of support, and a general failure by our society to grasp how much effort and investment is needed over a very long time to try to address an entrenched social problem.

The key message repeated over and over again in that report was that while we do indeed need much more housing and social supports, we will always have homelessness unless we address the root causes of it. Without that, you are simply housing those who are homeless right now, even while new people fall into homelessness behind them.

A decade on, we have built some more housing. We have added more outreach. We have shifted thinking in the judicial system to the point that judges now routinely make much more humane decisions when confronted with cases that so clearly come down to homelessness and poverty rather than criminal intent.

We have also talked and talked about the root causes of homelessness, so much so that I'd like to think that virtually everyone now understands much more that homelessness happens not because someone is too lazy to work or reluctant to "pull up their bootstraps," but because of things like mental illness, poverty, disability, catastrophic injury, substance issues, a lifetime of disadvantage, and the lack of any kind of personal support system to fall back.

But while public awareness may have improved, the strategies that might staunch the flow of people into homelessness have never come about. That explains why we are still talking about homelessness like nothing has changed, and why there were a thousand or so people living homeless in Victoria when the task force got underway in 2007 and still is. And why there still will be 10 years from now if we keep doing things in the same ineffective, reactive way.

A new report was released last week confirming that the majority of homeless youth in our country are survivors of the foster system. Children from families investigated through Canada's child-welfare system are almost 200 times more likely to end up homeless at some point in their lifetime compared to children with no involvement in the system.

Shocking. But we knew that already 10 years ago. We've heard about it repeatedly in the intervening years from former BC Children and Youth representative Mary Ellen Turpel Lafond, who penned report after report pointing out this tragic statistic. Yet here we are, still being shocked. Still doing nothing effective in response.

We also knew 10 years ago that discharging people from our provincial jails with no plan also fed into homelessness, not to mention led some of them to instantly commit another crime to get themselves out of their dire economic situation. We knew that discharging people with chronic mental illness from hospital without a solid plan did the same. As did relentlessly wearing down social supports to the point that people on the edge began to fall into the cracks.

So yeah, it's a bummer to still be talking about homelessness all these years later. But until we get serious about why we can't seem to get on top of it, it will remain a heartbreaking example of societal failure and wasted human potential.