Start a dialogue about safe and stable housing
We have a long way to go to create a socially just, equitable society
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.
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.