And Now He's Homeless - By Jenny O'Connell
Anyone who lives in an urban center in Canada is aware of homelessness. While I understand that sometimes it is necessary to call the police, and other times people just want something to be done immediately, homelessness isn't something the police can solve; it is a social issue whose origins can be traced directly back to policy changes in the 80’s and 90’s. Since then, it has been getting worse, and now tens of thousands of our fellow Canadians are experiencing homelessness on any given night.
I don’t know who the man was sitting in the entrance of Enterprise Saint John, or what his story is, but I do know that everyone has a story—and they are often surprising.
This article in The Star tells the story of another homeless man who, despite doing everything right (including graduating from Harvard Law School), ended up “haunting the same storefronts every day.”
This video by the National Film Board of Canada, tells the story of another man who has been homeless for years. His story is an incredibly powerful reminder that we are not immune, we are not different; homelessness can happen to anyone.
The only way we can make sure that we are truly safe from becoming chronically homeless, is to acknowledge that people get trapped in homelessness because our system is broken—not because of some character defect of personal fault—and then fix the system. If we take care of each other, including the most vulnerable and hard to help among us, and make sure there is a strong social safety net to catch people when they fall, then and only then can we know with certainty that we are looked after and so are our loved ones.
Homelessness is a national crisis; 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night. In the course of a year, over 235,000 Canadians will experience homelessness. The crisis of homelessness in our country can be traced directly back to federal spending cuts to affordable housing and welfare starting in the 1980’s. There is no excuse for homelessness and poverty being so widespread in an affluent country like Canada. Policy played a role in creating this crisis and it has a big part to play in ending it, too (an example is Medicine Hat, Alberta, which is the first city in Canada to effectively end chronic homelessness), but it will not happen overnight.
It is scary to admit that we are vulnerable, and to accept that it could happen to us. It is easier to believe that if someone is homeless it is somehow their fault. This is not true, and it is not helpful. Whatever your reason for wanting to fix the problem of homelessness, we can’t let fear paralyze us.
Homelessness has been well researched and we know what we have to do: giving people homes and the supports they need to stay in them is cheaper than doing nothing. While it will take everyone working together to end homelessness, government has a lead role to play. Whether you are an irritated business owner, a social justice advocate, or a tax-paying citizen who wants to see their tax dollars spent effectively, you should be contacting your elected officials and demanding engagement from all levels of government to address homelessness and our affordable housing crisis—starting with a national housing strategy.
Despite the fact that homelessness costs Canadian approximately $7 billion/year, we remain the only G8 country without a national housing strategy.
We can end homelessness, in Saint John and in Canada, but there are major systemic issues that need to be fixed. This won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, I would ask you to please remember that homeless people are human beings; please be kind.
By Jenny O'Connell