Friday, 11 September 2009

No more just "band-aid" solutions for our homeless

I went downtown for a walk with my significant other to enjoy the beautiful afternoon, walk the streets, sit in a café and sip some expensive coffee cup and was bombarded by the constant presence of homeless begging in the street. Their presence greatly annoyed my enjoyment and made me furious to note that young men who seem capable of having a job, sit on the street all day begging and having “fun” while I work hard and I have to give them money. No sire, that seems unfair. These are my significant other’s loud thoughts as I am walking through the Montreal streets and it hits me: why are there young people begging in the streets and what the heck is wrong with my humanity? I thought it was only old drunkards, old druggies, old people in general and that I had a heart (but I think it has become a stone when you seem them everyday, you really do forget that they are people and not just annoying “things”).

It appears that is not the case in Canada anymore. Since the 1980s, the demographics of homeless people have changed considerably, with women, young men and children being a bigger part of the numbers going to the street. I am perplexed, I am confounded, I am puzzled! Why?

After some research on my best friend google, I found some articles about homelessness in Canada. The Wikipedia one seemed to me the best one since it gave you everything you needed to know, from the definition of homelessness, to its history, its problems and its solutions.
It seems that homelessness in Canada has grown quite a bit and we got our government to thank for that. Yes, our wonderful government who in the attempt to save our much-loved taxes, cuts social housing programs, increases taxes and legislation for construction companies to build new affordable housing and make it even more expensive for all of us to own a place and on top of that, cuts social programs to deal with the causes of homelessness, mainly social issues stuff but I will get on that later.

Right now let’s focus on the housing problem.  
So, apparently the ‘80s were kind to the homeless, meaning that there were more social housing for them to live on, more programs for them to use and just less homeless to use the above. The ‘80s were kind because the ‘50s and ‘60s allowed them to be kind by sucking up the middle-class in the suburbs with the beautiful dream of owning your own little heaven and surprisingly, even the rich ones abandoned their mansions in the urban core and moved to bigger pastures in the ‘burbs. This meant that the poor could have a field day with all that cheap housing to go around and so they occupied the mansions, the cheap hotels where each owned their own room and could afford to have a roof over their heads. However, all this changed. Yes, it changed when the desires of the middle-class changed where their sons and daughters got bored of living in dull Utopia and decided to move into the downtown, experience the thralls of seeing beggars fight, party all night and go to work a couple of blocks away from home in the morning.
This in turn, meant that the poor could no longer live happily, they now had to pay higher prices for their one-room shithole or even be evicted because now the speculative contrusction companies were having a field day of their own, now they could take back those abandoned mansions and turn them into overly expensive condominiums. Ah, the money!!! You could hear it buzzing in their heads while the hammers went away at destroying the little hotels that were left or the few numbers of social housing that were present. The little seedlings of middle-class were here to stay and they had money, money to pay for it all. Not only that, they also had jobs, unlike the homeless.
So, what happens next is to be expected, affordable housing gets destroyed to make new, expensive housing and the poor go to the streets while the recent grads move in and get what they wanted, even more entertainment of brawls between an even bigger number of homeless.

So now the shelters go into high gear, they build bigger shelters for one-night accommodations and since the numbers are so high and the people are even more screwed up, they start making rules as to who gets what and when and where. This is the case with some bastard shelters while some kinder ones don’t ask questions, don’t give a shit what you did before or what you are gonna do, they just give you a bed, a meal, hygiene stuff and they get you going another day in the street. This goes on a while and then people notice that these kind of “band-aid” solutions are only short-term, they are really not doing much good. So here comes the new breed of shelters, they are more thoughtful, have more programs for the poor derelicts and yes, have some people with brains who start thinking long-term. I will mention one that I think is doing pretty well, The Covenant House. This is an organization that helps homeless youth in the Americas, meaning it is present in U.S., Canada, Mexico and some other South American countries. The good thing is that homeless youth get to have access not only to shelter and food for one night only, but they can stay and they are provided free health services, substance abuse services, counseling and the most important part, rehabilitation or education programs that prepare them for entering the world. They are given a second chance.

So here are my thoughts. Most people are homeless because they lose their home and cannot afford one or have lost one due to restructuring of the urban core, so why shouldn’t the government build new housing programs in the suburbs or where land is cheap and provide each homeless with a room or a house and a monthly bus pass so at least they get free transportation to work. They do not need to stay downtown, this way they can live in the suburbs and be able to find a job anywhere. If this is not possible or even as an additional thing, the government could give tax benefits or maybe pay people who rent rooms for cheap to registered homeless. This could be an incentive for people to accept homeless in their homes and charge them low rent.

Another aspect of homelessness are the social stuff, meaning the causes of homelessness have nothing to do with lack of a home but with the fact that you are abused and need to leave, you are mentally-ill and can’t get help, you are a drug-abuser and don’t know how to stop, or you love alcohol so much that you have lost everything and you cannot just say no. 

Programs are needed to stop these and detoxification centres are important and present, but they should not just be dungeons with mean people telling you to be quiet and take it. Positive reinforcement is needed with emotionally scarred people and I think arts would be the best way to open someone’s heart to rehabilitation. You give them hope by making them participate in an art event, let them make music, dance, paint, help grow flowers or food for themselves. Get them involved so they can do something and see the results and feel useful, feel that they are good at something. 

Am sure that all of these things are most probably applied, but the numbers of those in the street keep going up. This means that we are responsible for it. Yes, we the people are responsible for it and we all need to work together to stop it because that foul-smelling, annoying being on the road is someone’s sister or brother, father or mother, friend or relative. We have a responsibility to them by asking our government to take more actions and by volunteering our services to shelters, by giving a helping hand to the person on the street begging you for 25 cents. You give them a sandwich, offer them a nice shower, ask them why they are there and how you can help them, give them your unwanted clothes or even help them find a job. You can be a better person by not ignoring, by facing the scary, hurtful images of another person hurting and giving them a chance to prove to you that they are not the drunkard or failure they seem but a being full of potential.

I will leave you with these comments from street people gathered by Sheila Baxter in her book, Under the Viaduct.
- Homelessness is having money for booze but none for a room, when I was drunk.
- Homelessness is knowing you can be evicted any time.
 Homelessness is always having to move on.
- Homelessness is having rent increases that force you out.
- Homelessness is when you come out of jail and you don't know where you belong.
- Homelessness is not knowing where to go.

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