Thursday, May 24, 2007

On Ending Homelessness -- One brick at a time

Submitted by: John Rowland

In Calgary, like many other cities we have reached a crisis point with respect to homelessness. Being homeless is no longer the fate of the select few, but now can be said to be the fate of many in Calgary.

A family in the University area community where I live in is example of this. The father in the family works as a senior manager in a large company, (Not oil & gas) and the mother works full time in retail where she has held the same job for 10 years. Their son is in French emersion at the local school. They are now facing homelessness after the modest apartment building they live in was purchased by a group of investors. Within two days they received first a $700 rent increased, followed the next day with an eviction notice. Now they face an uncertain future, as they cannot find housing. While they have some money saved, they do not have enough saved to purchase a house. They do qualify for a mortgage, but the prices that are being charged would leave them nothing to live on. If they pay the rents that are being asked, they will not be able to save, assuming that they are able to find a place to rent. The classic “catch 22”, except that they are middle class.

The situation being faced by the poor is far more daunting. While they do have some income, they do not have enough to get in the game. They at best live hand to mouth, and saving is out of the question. For some homeless men, even when they have money, they cannot find housing, since they are “homeless”, and landlords consider them too great a risk. This leaves them without hope.

For the homeless person, most of the opportunities for housing open to them are EXPLOTIVE, AND UNSAFE. They can move into a house with several of their “friends”, and expect that their belongings might be stolen or the landlord unreasonable. They can also expect that one of their “friends” will fail to pay the rent, or have a party to which the police will be called. A woman can expect that SEX will be part of the deal, or a man might be called on to partake in illegal activities. Most likely one or more of the people they live with will be drinking or using drugs in excess. If they do not wish this, they have to go to the shelters.

What does hope look like for the Homeless person?

I believe that hope is a “one brick” process. It has to be founded on baby steps that can be managed with the expectation that people will fail. There has to be capacity to catch them when they do to ensure the fall is not too hard, or too far. Housing the poor has to be about allowing them to achieve and get ahead within their limited means. Like the middle class family, the poor need to be able to build their lives one brick at a time. The bricks cannot be too big, or they will not be able to manage them.

One Brick is getting part time work, or some income however small.

One Brick is finding an affordable room to rent, in a safe place. A safe place, where they will not be exploited, or robbed. A safe place, where they know that they will not be evicted because someone else did not pay the rent. A safe place, no matter how small. A safe place, where they know that they can still make the rent if they loose their job. A safe place, where they know that someone will take notice, and care when they have a bad day. Ultimately a safe place is somewhere that they can belong.

And another brick. With belonging comes the next brick; accountability -- personal, and within the community. Accountability, because it matters what other people think, when they value the relationships they have. Ultimately belonging, and accountability come from being a part of a community.

How does belonging create community, especially for the marginalized? When a child steals a piece of candy, the parents do not evict the child, but rather address the behavior and its impact on the family. They might make the child return the candy, or perhaps the child will have to lose a privilege. That the child stole the candy is not a surprise – it is an indication that help is needed, not shunning. That the homeless person fails should be no surprise either. But like the child, their belonging should not be the issue. How do we support them when they fail, so that they can succeed next time is the issue.

Success of another brick

Failure reinforces failure. Success reinforces success, and this is the next brick. Homeless people need to be assisted to succeed. This requires investments in supports. It requires creating affordable rooms for rent, in places that can be staffed by people who understand and support them. It requires creating environments where relationships can happen with people like themselves, struggling with the same issues. They need to be in environments where they hold each other accountable. As with the child who stole candy, they need to learn how their actions impact those around, and how they risk losing relationships they value. It will be only by experiencing success at this level that most will be able to place the next brick, and the one after that, and the one after that, and if one brick is knocked out, know that the whole wall is not broken.

Ultimately, ending homelessness is in recognizing that all of us need to build our lives one brick at a time, and as the bricks get bigger, fewer and fewer of us are able to place them in the wall. Most of us get a little help along the way, but when the bricks get too big more help is required. The 19 year old moving out for the first time needs to be able to place the brick, in the same way that the homeless man rebuilding his life needs to be able to place the brick, as does the middle class family.

Submitted by John Rowland, Data System Coordinator, Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre

Photograph: Ian Britton
Courtesy of

No comments: