Today, a TV reporter phoned wanting to do a story on homeless individuals who have been affected by the cold. Well, the trite answer is, every homeless person is affected by the cold. The reality is, some are affected more than others.
For those living in transitional housing such as the clients on the 4th and 5th floors of the Drop-In and at Centre 110, they know where they'll be sleeping every night. They don't have to line up. They don't have to spend the day worrying about whether or not they'll find a place to sleep that night. They have an assigned bed. A place just for them.
Transitional housing accounts for approximately one-third of our shelter space. For the other two-thirds, worry as to where they'll sleep each night takes up an enormous part of their day, especially when it's cold.
I agree with the reporter. Putting a human face on the physical cost of homelessness is important. I just wasn't prepared for the reality of what I found when I asked the staff for help in identifying individuals who would be willing to talk on camera about their experience of being homeless and cold.
The reality is chilling.
Collin (I have used pseudonyms for everyone) lost both feet December 31st due to complications of frostbite. Happy New Year.
Darius lost the toes on one foot and two fingers.
Micheal lost fingers on both hands.
Tina had frostbite but it's believed she will not lose any digits or limbs. We hope.
Jarred too is expected to recover without loss of limb. For the time being, he's whole. At least until the next time he's forced to sleep outside due to over-capacity at the Drop-In and other shelters.
Kurt was not so lucky. He lost the toes on both his feet.
And we argue about who is responsible for homelessness and how are we going to end it in ten years.
For these individuals, homelessness, with or without the loss of limb, has not ended. They don't have the luxury of sitting around a board room table weighing the cost of homelessness against the benefits of affordable housing that will be built in future years. They're hanging out at the Drop-In, trying to fit the pieces of their lives back together. Trying to incorporate this new state of being into their current reality as they struggle to rid themselves of the label they had, Homeless, and the new one they've just acquired, Disabled. They're struggling to figure out how they'll work again. How will they find a home. Be independent. Dream. Get away from the drudgery of spending each day struggling to make sense of the non-sensical. Where did their limbs go? Where did their future go? Where did their freedom to make choices go? What happened to their lives?
No one can give these people back what they've lost. Time will never heal the psychological wounds inflicted upon them. Time will not heal lost limbs.
Sure, they'll move on. Possibly. Perhaps. Maybe.
They'll need help. Definitely.
But who will give it?
At the Drop-In, we do not have the capacity nor the facility to treat the wounds buried deep beneath the skin. We have a nurse on staff. He was hired last fall when management realized that despite lobbying, no funds could be found in the health region to support an in-house nurse. Our staff nurse can treat the visible wounds. Provide triage and bandaids and clean wounds and give support. But he cannot treat the wounds buried deep beneath the skin. He can clean a stump, but he cannot clean out the mental refuse that clogs the thinking and feeling of someone who has suffered the indignity and sorrow of being homeless and then lost a limb in the process.
I am angry.
Committees are struck. Temperature initiated housing policies are set in place to determine when the City will respond to the homeless crisis.
What does the weather have to do with being homeless? The weather didn't cause homelessness. And it definitely will not cure it.
And yet, we sit back and watch the mercury falling with the fervent passion of an astronomer gazing at the stars waiting for the next big bang in space.
Collin doesn't care what is written in the stars. He can barely look up from the desperation of his new reality. His life is now determined by the confines of a wheelchair. Every day he pushes his way across the second floor of the Drop-In searching for answers, feeling the pain in his missing feet. Every day he struggles to understand the nonsensical past where there is no sense to what has happened to him, other than that someone, somewhere, was unwilling to open a door that might have kept him out of the cold long enough to get off his feet so he wouldn't lose them.
I am angry.
Everyday hope is crushed beneath bureaucratic insistence that homelessness is some other agency's responsibility. Some other government bodies domain. Everyday fingers and toes and lives are buried beneath the weight and cruelty of homelessness and all we can do is talk about affordable housing, in the future.
People are being hurt. Today. Right now.
Our mayor is in Mexico, and while I'm sure it's a well-deserved break from his duties, for the thousands of people who have no place to call home in our city, there is no break from the cold and no break from the crushing hopelessness of homelessness. Their lives are at risk. Today. Right now.
When do we stop being part of the problem and become active participants in creating solutions that work today?
When do we start treating homelessness as something that happens to people rather than something that happens to 3,436 statistics duly noted on the register of the Homeless Count?
When do we make a difference to people whose lives have led them to believe they don't make a difference to anyone, including themselves?