Attitude adjustment would solve our homeless problem

Our attitude towards the homeless is a barrier to solving the problem. The old notion is that the poor deserve to be so:  if people would just apply themselves, they wouldn’t be homeless.

image: KamloopsThis Week

Finland’s experience shows how a shift in attitude makes a difference.

In 1987, Finland had a homeless population of about 20,000 out of a population of five million –a rate of four homeless per thousand.

To address the problem, Finland adopted a “Housing First” philosophy, said Juha Kaakinen (Globe and Mail, August 13, 2021).

 Kaakinen, chief executive officer of Finland’s non-profit Y-Foundation, was addressing a panel convened by The Canadian Urban Institute.

Another panelist, Leilani Farha, said that part of Finland’s success is the result of shift in mindset. For Finns, homelessness is not an option.

“People have a right to housing as part of their constitution.” said Farha,

Finland’s solved the problem with a partnership between federal and state governments, lottery corporations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

The Y-Foundation, a non-profit organization, started buying private apartments in 1985 with grants obtained from the government run Finland Slot Machine Association.

In turn, the Y-Foundation subleased the apartments out to municipalities and NGOs. The rent plus the grants paid for the apartments.

Finland’s homeless rate is now one-fifth of what it was.

It’s tempting to think of housing the homeless as an expense when, in fact, it’s savings. Housing for all everyone has proven to be the most effective remedy for improving lives and saving money.

A study published by Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found that costs to Seattle’s public health system dropped by 60 per cent in the first six months after chronically homeless people with severe alcoholism were found homes.

Canada is not beyond hope. Our homeless rate is just above what Finland’s was in 1987 –about six homeless per thousand.

All levels of government are working on the problem.

The City of Kamloops’ Affordable Housing Reserve Fund allows for up to $150,000 per project for low income earners.

The B.C. government built 3,200 new affordable housing units last year and more are being built this year. (Full disclosure: I am the president of a non-profit organization that will take possession of the largest project in the interior built by BC Housing, opening in downtown Kamloops this fall.)

The federal government is working with Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) to build affordable housing. This year’s federal budget provides an additional $2.5 billion over seven years to CMHC.

Dignity and financial security are restored when the homeless are given homes.

Tina Dawson, 52, from Victoria, told the Institute’s panel about being homeless for first-time in the past year:

“Being newly homeless, I am gob-smacked at the way things are out of sight, out-of-mind, and the machine that is in place to keep people homeless. How on earth am I going to get out of this position? I’ve managed my entire life. I’ve raised three children. And I have no address. The problem is [putting together] the damage deposit. I’m on permanent disability. That’s hand to mouth.”

Those who work full-time at minimum wage jobs should be able to afford a place to live.

Surely that’s not too much of an adjustment in attitude to make.

Don’t confuse all the homeless with Kamloops’ street menagerie

A few deranged, mentally ill and brain-addled addicts on Kamloops’ streets get a lot of attention. But don’t label all the homeless as troublemakers.

Image: Mel Rothenburger, Kamloops

Kamloops RCMP superintendent Syd Lecky shares in the frustration of residents and business owners who notice the same people committing crimes repeatedly.

“When you have them back on the street in a short period of time, it is frustrating,” said Lecky. “And it does challenge us in terms of being able to manage the risk… whether the risk for these offenders to continue offending, whether it be violence or property crime. It’s really going to create some pressure on us to be able to put an end to that.”

Some of the homeless are just regular folk who choose to live outdoors. I get that.

I first met my neighbour Paul when he was living in a river bank one block from my house in Westsyde. I say “my neighbour” because, except that he lived outside, he was friendlier than some of my neighbours.

Although he lived nearby, Paul was hard to find.

I discovered his campsite when I noticed that the grass had been disturbed down a steep river bank. Curious, I carefully descended the bank and found myself in an almost impenetrable thicket.

A voice came from my left: “Come around this way, it’s easier,” as he welcomed me to his humble abode. Paul, in his forties, had notched a level spot in the river bank and strung a tarp over his shelter; his modest belongings arranged around him. He introduced himself and I sat down to chat.

Years ago, Paul had been a sheltered neighbour just a few blocks away. After his divorce, he lost his house and wandered around from town to town before returning to Kamloops. He was outgoing and happy to tell me his life story. We exchanged cell phone numbers and I left.

When I went back a few months later, Paul was gone.

I understand the appeal of living outside. When I hitchhiked in Australia, I used to set up camp in the bush near small towns. I’d walk into town; my gear stowed in what I hoped would be in an undetected spot.

It was a great way to travel. I’d buy groceries and hang out with locals in the pub.

However, being homeless and living on the street is not so idyllic. It can be a living hell. According to the most recent survey of Kamloops’ homeless, 40 per cent of those surveyed were first homeless from ages 10 to 19. Many of those “aged out” of foster care with few survival skills.

Almost one-half of respondents indentified as indigenous.

Not only do many of these teenagers have few life skills, they can have disabilities such as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). That leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous individuals. They become a resource in the quagmire of street life; in prostitution and dealing drugs.

For indigenous street people who have aged out of the foster care system, the loss of identity is debilitating. They are doubly resentful of a system that is rigged against them –stripped of their culture and exploited by a toxic street culture.

If young people weren’t mentally ill and addicted to begin with, the gritty street life will soon make them so.

Regrettably, low-cost housing will not solve their devastating problems. At one time they might have been cared for in institutions such as Tranquille.

Now their future looks bleak.

One-time handout to the homeless reduces social costs

It may seem counterintuitive to give cash to homeless people. Didn’t their poor money skills get them on the street in the first place?

image: Vintage Fitness

The University of British Columbia decided to find out in an experiment. In cooperation with a charity, Foundations for Social Change, they gave a one-time handout of $7,500 cash to 50 people who been homeless for an average of six months and tracked them over the next year. They also tracked a control group who received no payments. Both groups received counselling.

The homeless group moved into stable housing faster, ate and were clothed better, and even saved $1,000 after a year. They spent 39 per cent less on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs.

And they reduced the social cost of homeless-shelter services that amounted to $8,100 a year.

The results of the experiment challenge stereotypes of the homeless –that if they just stopped begging on the streets and shooting up toxic drugs, if they got a job and tried harder, they wouldn’t be homeless. But sometimes life delivers hard knocks.

Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to believe in you and to trust that you will spend money wisely. If others believe in us, we can believe in ourselves.

As a high school teacher in Electronics and later an instructor at Thompson Rivers University, I’ve found that when you expect students to do well it’s a big motivator.

The same is true for the homeless. Given a hand up can go a long way to restore confidence, empower people to find housing, regain stability, and bring back dignity and a sense of well-being. Cash handouts are not merely a gesture of help. It is a signal that society believes in them.

One participant said: “I had hit rock bottom. You couldn’t get any lower than where I was. I had no hope and then when the money came and I found housing and then daycare it just all kind of came into place. It was so nice, you know?”

The pandemic has made it glaringly clear how cash transfers have kept people out of poverty. The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) helped many but that’s ended, replaced with more targeted programs.

According to a popular pandemic quote: “We’re all in the same storm but not the same boat.” Job losses owing to COVID-19 are heavily skewed toward working-age Canadians at the low end of the income scale – restaurant and hospitality workers, young adults, new immigrants and women.

Charities, such as the food bank, the Mustard Seed and Salvation Army, have a role to play in alleviating suffering. But charity reflects and amplifies the gap between the ones giving and the ones receiving. I feel good when I give to a charity but the imbalance in power is obvious.

If something isn’t done to help Canadians through this crisis while preserving their dignity and confidence to survive; if the gap between the rich and poor increases; we will all be worse off, including the rich.

Kamloops needs a homeless sleep centre

Kamloops agencies care for the spiritual and physical needs of our homeless: faith, food, warmth in the winter, air conditioning in the summer.

credit :SeanShot. Getty Images

However, there is no place to get a decent sleep.

Accommodating the sleep needs of the homeless is often regarded as a “nice to have” feature. But sleeplessness can reduce the immune system, put people at greater risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, kidney disease, stroke, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The homeless are disproportionately affected. Almost one half suffer from insomnia.

Sleeplessness affects more than the physical health of the homeless. They already suffer from anxiety because of their precarious lifestyle. Mental illness further compounds anxiety. Sleeplessness adds to that.

Insufficient sleep impairs the mind, hampering decision making, memory, and mood. A recent study found that adults who stayed awake for just one twenty-four-hour period had an anxiety response 30 percent stronger than others who were allowed to sleep (Walrus, December, 2019).

Shelter staff and volunteers experience first-hand the frustration and aggression of the homeless resulting from exhaustion. Shelters are not designed to provide long, flexible hours of sleep.

Sleeping on park benches, doorways, and bus shelters is frowned on. Municipalities install “hostile” architectural elements, such as tilted benches and street spikes, which are intentionally designed to prevent people from lying down.

Social stigma and aggression from passersby can worsen the situation for anyone trying to find rest in a bus shelter or on a park bench.

I find public sleeping disturbing, except in certain circumstances such as at the beach or on a blanket in a park where a picnic is obvious. When I see someone sleeping on a sidewalk, I have mixed feelings of sympathy and offense at the encounter of an unconscious body.

Social norms determine when, where, and with whom people should sleep. Those norms are spelled out in shelter rules, loitering regulations, and policing practice. That leaves street people socially ostracized.

Street people often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs to get some sleep. But alcohol and drugs operate in a negative feedback loop. They provide the illusion of inducing rest but actually disturb sleep, leaving people more tired, more likely to feel pain, and more inclined to self-medicate.

Restaurants have varying policies regarding sleeping. The ones that I go to on the (North) Shore allow sleeping. I won’t name them because I don’t want to infer official policy. I often see a transient young person with their head down on the table, asleep. Somehow, I feel more protective of young people so obviously sleep deprived –perhaps for the same reason I feel protective of children or because I, too, have hitchhiked globally and experienced “rough sleeping,” as the Brits put it.

A good sleep for the homeless is not a trivial problem. The median cost of each homeless person to Canadian society is $55,000 per year and half of that goes to health care, more to policing and social services. In Kamloops, that amounts to $10 million for the approximate 180 homeless people here.

A good night’s sleep for the homeless would cut health and policing costs, reduce the wear-and-tear on shelter staff and volunteers, remove disturbing bodies from our streets and give the homeless what we all wish for ourselves –peaceful slumber.