Saturday, March 17, 2007

Do It Now

On March 31, 287+ individuals will go to sleep in the safe, warm environment of a temporary emergency shelter. While it’s not a place to call home, it does provide a mat, blankets, washroom facilities, food and a place to come in out of the cold. In the morning, after they awaken, they will be transported back downtown and spend the day as they have for the past three months since the shelter was opened in December. Some will go to work. Some will take courses at the Mustard Seed or Bow Valley College. Some will come to the second floor of the Drop-In and while away the hours, playing cards, watching TV, volunteering, talking to friends and staff, sharing a meal. Some will spend the day in the library, or wandering the streets looking for somewhere to go.

That evening, when normally they would be checking in to be transported up to the shelter, they will have no where to go. No where to sleep. No where to get in from the elements. No where they can legally rest their heads.

On April 1, 2007, the temporary shelter in the old Brick building on 16th Ave. N.W. will be closed. A page in the City’s plan to temporarily house the approximately 300 adult men and women for whom there were no emergency beds will be closed and with that closure, the lives of 287+ people will be in flux, once again.

As a means to avoid a crisis in the event of winter weather, Council has committed to opening temporary emergency shelter space, should the temperature fall below –15 degrees Celsius. Council has also given administration the green light to find a suitable facility (and begin securing the necessary land use approvals) to establish a temporary emergency shelter for the winter of 2007/2008.[1] Given that the homeless count for 2006 was 32% higher than 2004, it is a prudent step on the part of Council and City administration. At the rate of growth in Calgary’s homeless population, were the count to be taken on May 10, 2007, the homeless population in our City will have increased by 16% or approximately 1,040 people over last year.

Unfortunately, regardless of the temperature, a proposed temporary emergency shelter for any period of time is of little consequence to the 287+ men and women who will be left without shelter on April 1. For them, the pressure of finding safe, secure and legal sleeping accommodation is a life or death issue. However, in a city with an almost zero vacancy rate, where the average monthly rent is significantly above the poverty line under which the majority of homeless individuals exist, finding a safe, legal place to sleep is almost impossible.

They can’t sleep under bridges or on park benches. We’ve got a bylaw to ensure they don’t.

They can’t sleep at any of the existing shelters. The reason the temporary emergency shelter was opened was because of the over-capacity in the existing shelters. The Drop-In currently sleeps 1100 individuals per night, and has been at or near capacity for the past year.

They can’t go home. They don’t have a home.

They can’t change their circumstances overnight. The factors that drove them onto the street are still the factors that keep them homeless. No affordable housing. A dearth of facilities and treatment programs for addictions. Limited resources to help with those who, due to mental diseases cannot live without assistance. Divorce and break-ups. Family violence. Sexual assault. Poor decisions. Limited life skills and/or education. Etc.

Where do they go?

It is inconceivable that a City as prosperous and socially conscious as Calgary can turn a blind eye to the plight of these individuals. And yet, we do. Except of course, unless the temperature drops below the magic –15 degrees Celsius.

There is nothing magic about a night on the streets, whatever the temperature. And yet, we do nothing.

On April 1, 287+ men and women will have no where to sleep, and we expect them to be law abiding citizens. We expect them to not pitch a tent on the river bank, to not sleep in vacant garages or huddle in doorways or lay on park benches. We expect them to be compliant and to not break the laws we've imposed to create a civil society while we act without civility towards them.

We’re pretty clear on what they can’t do. Isn’t it time we got clear on what we can do? Rather than continually stating, homelessness is not a municipal problem, it’s the responsibility of the Province, isn’t it time we said, “Homelessness is our problem. Homelessness is wrong. When one person sleeps out in the cold, the quality of life for every Calgarian is affected.”

Talking about the number of affordable housing units we’re building, soon, or what we plan on doing in ten years will not impact the plight of the 287+ individuals with no place to sleep on April 1. These individuals have no where to go and they’re not just magically going to be absorbed into non-existent housing in Calgary because the problems they face in trying to secure suitable and affordable housing are not going away either.

It’s time to demand Council and the Provincial government turn up and pay attention to the problems our citizens face today so that we can all sleep safely and soundly in our beds on April 1, 2007. If you have not called your Alderman or MLA to ensure they are actively seeking a viable solution that will ensure these individuals have no other choice than to roam the streets, Do It Now. Time is of the essence. Be loud. Be vocal and give voice to the dire circumstances of the 287+ individuals and the 3,436 who were counted as homeless on May 10, 2006. They need our help.

[1] Amy Alexander, Issue Strategist/Homelessness Coordinator, The City of Calgary

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