Start a di­a­logue about safe and sta­ble hous­ing

We have a long way to go to cre­ate a so­cially just, eq­ui­table so­ci­ety

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - CAROL COWAN-MORNEAU

I was sad­dened and dis­heart­ened to read the re­cent sto­ries in The Spec­ta­tor about the men be­ing evicted from their makeshift camp on the City’s brown­field prop­erty.

Surely, most of us think, we could have made bet­ter progress end­ing home­less­ness by now. It puts the cel­e­bra­tions of Canada’s 150th an­niver­sary of con­fed­er­a­tion this sum­mer into perspective. We are a great coun­try with much to cel­e­brate but we have a long way to go to cre­ate a so­cially just, eq­ui­table so­ci­ety where ev­ery per­son has the right to ad­e­quate, safe and af­ford­able hous­ing.

As some­one who has worked in the emer­gency shel­ter sys­tem for two decades, a few things about The Spec­ta­tor’s story dis­turbed me. I want to share them since those of us work­ing with in­di­vid­u­als ex­pe­ri­enc­ing home­less­ness, and work­ing to end home­less­ness, too rarely take the time to com­mu­ni­cate with the broader public on these is­sues.

My first thought read­ing the story was: Do these men know their per­sonal sto­ries are go­ing to be read by the en­tire city, and made avail­able world­wide? These are real peo­ple’s lives with deeply per­sonal and of­ten painful sto­ries. I re­spect the role of in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism in civil so­ci­ety, but I won­der what price peo­ple who are al­ready vul­ner­a­ble are pay­ing to ed­u­cate us about these is­sues. Do per­sonal sto­ries of cri­sis have to be shared so graph­i­cally and openly — by oth­ers — be­fore we fi­nally take ac­tion? The ex­po­sure of peo­ple’s most per­sonal de­tails in cri­sis sit­u­a­tions in news sto­ries and doc­u­men­taries hap­pen ev­ery­where but isn’t some­one’s right to pri­vacy and dig­nity more im­por­tant?

My ex­pe­ri­ence teaches me that these men prob­a­bly made a cal­cu­lated choice to live out­doors out of sheer frus­tra­tion. Many peo­ple who sleep rough out­side do so be­cause they find it dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate the many bar­ri­ers and pro­ce­dural road­blocks im­posed by our com­plex sys­tem: le­gal, health care, fi­nan­cial sup­port, and — yes — the emer­gency shel­ter sys­tem. An emer­gency shel­ter is not a home; it’s an­other sys­tem that has re­stric­tions and ex­pec­ta­tions. It is a place for in­di­vid­u­als to ad­dress needs and con­nect to ser­vices. It is not home. Peo­ple stay­ing in a shel­ter are in cri­sis and there­fore these in­sti­tu­tions are chal­leng­ing and dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate.

The point is not that these men’s sto­ries re­veal a lack of ca­pac­ity in the shel­ter sys­tem — although the sys­tem is fre­quently at ca­pac­ity. Rather, it re­veals how we need to un­der­stand home­less­ness as a mal­ady that af­fects the health of our com­mu­nity mem­bers. We need to be more aware of the is­sues that make peo­ple home­less, make ser­vices more ac­ces­si­ble and bar­rier free for those with com­plex needs such as ad­dic­tions, men­tal ill­ness, trauma or a com­bi­na­tion of these. We need ac­ces­si­ble, af­ford­able, sup­ported hous­ing. No one lives rough be­cause they are too lazy to work or be­cause they pre­fer that life­style.

Last week, some­one tagged Mis­sion Ser­vices on Twit­ter ad­vis­ing that there was a wo­man liv­ing on the steps of a Church in the Strath­cona neigh­bour­hood. Car­ing staff con­tacted Street Out­reach Ser­vices, and we have since been work­ing with this wo­man to be­gin the coura­geous jour­ney to sta­ble liv­ing.

Dur­ing her time on the steps of the church, neigh­bours from the com­mu­nity spoke to her and of­fered as­sis­tance by of­fer­ing her wa­ter and food. They made her feel com­fort­able and safe to the best of their abil­ity. They reached out to help. This is what com­mu­nity looks like. We care. We ask. We reach out. We don’t in­sist on help­ing but we make help avail­able and in so do­ing, we con­tinue to re­spect peo­ple’s pri­vacy, dig­nity, and right to choose how to move for­ward.

I want to en­cour­age those who were trou­bled by read­ing these men’s sto­ries to take ac­tion. Speak out, start a di­a­logue, write to your City Coun­cil­lor, your mem­ber of Par­lia­ment or Provin­cial Par­lia­ment about the lack of safe, af­ford­able hous­ing in Hamil­ton. Tell them that you’ve seen what hap­pens when we as a so­ci­ety do not pro­vide hous­ing as a ba­sic hu­man right. Tell them you care about the vul­ner­a­ble in our com­mu­nity and that you do not want peo­ple to have to live rough on our streets or on va­cant land for­got­ten and dis­con­nected from com­mu­nity.

Carol Cowan-Morneau is the Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor at Mis­sion Ser­vices of Hamil­ton.

CATHIE COWARD, THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

Men liv­ing on city prop­erty at Bar­ton and Tif­fany were re­cently evicted by Hamil­ton Po­lice and Hamil­ton city work­ers. Once the men had col­lected their be­long­ings a Bob­cat moved onto the site in an ef­fort to level and clean up the makeshift camp.

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