After five years of working at the Drop-In, three of which were on the "Intox" floor, I believe that homelessness is closely related to, and perpetuated by, hopelessness. Every day at work I wake up guys at 3, 4, and 5 a.m., who go off to work for $10 per hour. I'm just guessing, but what I think goes through the heads of many of our clients is something like this: "OK, today is payday. So do I sock away my entire $400 cheque today and for the next three or four paydays so that I can have first month's rent and damage deposit for my own place, or should I buy smokes and a couple of cases of beer to drink with my friends tonight? And maybe I'll get a hotel room for a couple of nights, so I won't have to put up with snoring, with stinky feet on both sides of me, and the possibility that staff won't notice when someone tries to steal something out of my backpack during the night."
In Calgary the boomtown, where rents under $800 per month are few and far between, this is a powerful rationalization for the kind of wheel-spinning, self-destructive behaviour I see in so many of our clients. I'd like to ask anyone complaining about panhandlers, stupid drunks and crackheads, and lazy street people, if they have ever made a phone call to their MLA or alderman calling for affordable housing and a higher minimum wage; have they ever demanded more money or land be allocated to treatment centres in Alberta?
In the face of unreasonable prices, people despair. They turn to the escape to be had in drugs, alcohol, and gambling - and the revenues of the latter end up mostly in provincial coffers, I'm ashamed to know. The social costs of these addictive behaviours are enormous. We see the loss of invaluable talents, skills, dreams, and ideas, as men and women drift from one temp job to another, unable to imagine the possibility of meaningful work. If we are ever to reduce homelessness, then hope needs to be brought a little closer to earth, rather than seeming like pipe dreams up in the sky, for the down-and-out on our streets.
Roger G. is a night supervisor at the Drop-In. This article originally appeared as a letter in FFWD magazine a couple of years ago.