Ten years ago, no one could predict that two jet liners would be purposefully flown into the World Trade Center and change the lives of people around the world. In its aftermath, no one could predict Canadians would need a passport to cross the longest undefended border in the world. Ten years ago, we could not predict that oil would rise above $50 dollars a barrel, let alone 60. Ten years ago, we could not predict Calgary’s economic boom would result in such a dramatic rise in homelessness.
Ten years ago, the Drop-In operated out of an old building and managed a transitional housing centre at Centre 110 and a satellite shelter. We had been offering counseling services for 2 years and the Labour Office (casual and permanent job placement) had been operating for 6 years. Ten years ago, we had also shifted from an 18 hour day to 24 hours per day, 7 days a week service model.
Ten years have made a remarkable difference in what we do and how we do it. However, no matter how well we plan or how well-intentioned our planning is, changing times dictate changing paths. Ten years ago we couldn’t predict that our new facility, sometimes called the Hobo Hilton by outsiders, designed to house 500 individuals, would have to expand to accommodate over 1100 a night. Ten years ago, we would not have seen the need for an in-house nurse, career training initiatives, and computer labs. But, the changing face of homelessness has dictated that we focus on identifying pathways out of homelessness, not just sleeping and feeding those without a place to live.
Ten years ago, we could not predict the future. We could, however, predict that whatever we did, our focus would be on sheltering the less fortunate members of our society with dignity and respect. We could predict that whatever service or program we provided, our focus would be on our clients, their needs, their challenges, and on reconnecting them with their hopes and dreams and possibilities for a better future.
Today, we still cannot predict the future. We can, however, predict that in the future some faces will disappear from the homeless landscape in our city and new ones will appear. Not because they want to be homeless. No one wants to be homeless. They will appear because no matter how hard we fight to bring an end to homelessness, or change the length of time someone is homeless, until we stop the systemic causes, we will not stem the flow. The factors that contribute to homelessness today, will be there tomorrow if they are not dealt with appropriately.
The causes leading up to someone losing their home are complex and varied. Homelessness can be triggered by bad decision-making, poor life skills, a history of poverty, women fleeing violence, mental disorders, addictions or an inability to cope with life’s ups and downs. It can be caused by a breakdown in families, a lack of discharge planning from mental institutions, hospitals and prisons. It can be the result of government planning, or lack of government planning. It can be a wrong turn, the loss of a job, or the loss of a loved one.
Last Monday, I attended the Community Summit on Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness. The people at the table where I was seated ranged from business executives, to social services providers. The man next to me was involved in an addictions recovery centre. At one point during the presentations, he turned to me and said, “Well, guess you’re out of a job in a few years time.”
“Wouldn’t that be lovely,” I replied. “It would mean we’d achieved our goal. Do you believe it’s possible?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” he said, his head nodding affirmatively to emphasize his support of the 10 Year Plan.
“Great,” I replied. “That means if we can end homelessness in 10 years, we can set the same goal for addictions.”
He sat back in his chair, his eyes registering shocked disbelief. “Absolutely won’t happen,”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because,” and he paused as he searched for an appropriate answer. “They’re completely different. Addictions have been around for centuries. They’re even mentioned in the Bible.”
“Does their longevity make them right?”
“It’s not about right or wrong,” he said. “It’s part of the human make-up. Addictions are much more complex than homelessness. The issues are life long.”
“But aren’t many of the contributing factors the same?” I asked.
“Yes,” he slowly responded. “But you’ll never end addictions.”
Too bad. I like the idea that something that affects over 35% of homeless individuals could be ended. I like the idea that something that places enormous stress on resources, productivity and our health care system can be stopped. In January 2007, the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse reported that abuse of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs cost Albertans $4.4 billion in 2002. In Calgary, that translates to approximately $260 per capita. Homelessness costs approximately $40 per capita.
In the Welcome from the Chairman comments of the program for the Summit, Steven Snyder, Chairman, Calgary Committee to End Homelessness wrote, There is incredible enthusiasm, momentum and determination in our city to solve this issue once and for all.”
I’m glad. I’d like to see homelessness end for everyone.
Homelessness, however, is not ‘an issue’ that can be solved like the implementation of a corporate downsizing to stem the bleeding on the bottom line. Homelessness is a societal distress signal. The smoke is rising and we are being engulfed in the fog of believing homelessness is the cause of our distress.
Our distress is based on how confident we feel in the predictability of our future. Whether or not there are visible homeless begging for change on our city streets, if addictions continue to rise, if family violence continues to force women and children to flee their homes, or condominium conversions and redevelopment force low income earners to leave the security of their homes, our society will continue to be at risk and our future less rosey.
Focusing on homelessness as a singular issue that needs to be taken care of, once and for all, allows us to escape addressing the bigger issues we need to address to ensure we live in an inclusive society that welcomes diversity and celebrates individuality, regardless of economic position, cultural practice or creed.
When we attempt to manage homelessness as if we have the answers that will stop those experiencing it from feeling marginalized and under-valued, we contribute to the mindset that states, homelessness is wrong. If it’s wrong, than those experiencing it are in the wrong and we are labeling them criminals in their time of need. In our collusion, we are letting ourselves off the hook of investigating what each of us has done, is doing, or isn’t doing to contribute towards a society in which we all have value and share in values that create harmony, not discord. When we focus on homelessness as the issue we take our sights off what we can do to create a better future for everyone, in spite of our pasts.
I can’t predict the future, but I can predict that if we direct our energies to ending homelessness without addressing the deeper societal issues that have driven its rise, we lose the opportunity to create a community worthy of everyone who calls our city home. We lose the opportunity to be great.