I know we say we can, but do we believe it?
In my work in the social service sector, I have encountered many people who have been homeless, either for a short time or a long time, and I believe for the most part that the majority of those folks want to be responsible, pro-social members of society. And let’s face it; there are many barriers for these folks to accomplish this goal, both internal and systemic.
Personal barriers include mental health issues, addiction, learning disorders, cognitive impairment, poor physical health, family violence, social isolation and dare I say but there are some (albeit a small number) of people who prefer to be homeless.
Systemic barriers include poverty, lack of affordable housing stock, under employment, the “Not In My Back Yard” mentality (NIMBY), limited access to health and social services, and inadequate social policy that is counterproductive to goal of individual independence to name just a few.
Another systemic issue in my opinion is the question of who has control of one’s care. I find it intriguing that as professionals, we assert the individual’s freedom to choose yet on the other hand we use the power of our position to impose “solutions” on those we serve. Granted, the intention is good. I believe we as professionals truly do have our clients best interest at heart. Yet, that doesn’t excuse doing the opposite of what we hold to be most valued (more on this another time I suppose).
Without a doubt, I believe there is a complex interplay between all of these forces, internal and external, that have a direct bearing on homelessness. And solutions in one only will not necessarily eliminate the issue on its own. For example, while poverty is a lead cause of homelessness, to eliminate poverty does not necessarily eliminate homelessness. If the problem is multidimensional, then the solution must also be multidimensional.
For example, on a personal level, having enough resources to address mental health, addictions, violence, social isolation and other factors are important components to any solution. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addictions at Simon Fraser University, it costs $37,000 per year to provide housing and supports to homeless individuals and costs the taxpayer $55,000 per year if they remain homeless. Consequently one solution is government’s adequate investment into the care and development of homeless individuals that addresses the individual barriers to remaining housed.
Systemically, an investment into the care of individuals will eliminate or at least minimize the burden on the health care system. Cross ministry social policy is necessary to ensure efforts are collaborative and consistent. For example, welfare benefits need to cover basic needs without contributing to the cycle of poverty and homelessness. Food security initiatives, already in progress in many communities, should be enhanced and strengthened to address ongoing poverty. Finally, municipalities and provincial governments need to designate land for “tent cities.” This would allow regulators to ensure land is used for its intended purpose, provide health and other services when needed while respecting the rights of the individual to live independently.
Nimbyism also needs to be addressed through public education and other means. I am stunned often at the public’s general ignorance and/or apathy about the issues related to homelessness. Many people generally are concerned but believe “what can I do?” while others I have experienced are anywhere from indifferent to hostile regarding homeless persons. “Pick yourself up” and “they’re just too lazy” or “I had to work. There’s no such thing as a free ride” are just some of the comments I have heard from every day, Joe Q or Jane Q public. Education as to the cycle of poverty and homelessness, the lack of available supports and other contributing factors will educate and perhaps even motivate the public to action.
Make no mistake, homelessness is everyone’s concern. And I believe firmly that we can actually eliminate it. It will take a coordinated effort and commitment from many stakeholders but I believe it’s possible during my lifetime. So what are you waiting for? Get involved somehow and let’s get to it…
 Patterson, M, Somers, J, McIntosh, K, Shiell, A, and Frankish, C (2008) Housing and Support for adults with severe addictions and/or mental illness in British Columbia Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, Simon Fraser University, p11.