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On Homelessness

Updated: May 21, 2022

2 years ago, I began working at a men’s drop-in shelter. Here are a few things I have learned:

It CAN happen to you.

As much as we like to believe the contrary, most of us are only a few bad breaks away. 4 for some, especially in the US, 8 for others, but capitalism creating artificial scarcity, poverty is always there, closer than you think.

Homeless people come in all shapes and sizes: there are dewy youths of seventeen and skeletal way-past-retirement-age old-timers. I have met persons who once made six figure salaries, some who have or had a loving family, some a very rich one. A lot of our guests work – most of those who can, and even some with major barriers to employment.

All those supporting walls you count on to protect you? They can crumble.

Sometimes one huge catastrophe is enough to throw one into homelessness: a child’s illness, the death of a spouse… Sometimes it’s a chain of events, each sinking a person deeper until they hit bottom.

The popular narrative presents some of these catastrophes as self-inflicted, but it is best to reserve judgment: not all evictions are justified (in fact a lot are predatory), not all convictions are legitimate (especially if one is BIPOC and/or poor). Past the societal problems we have let worsen, what the person lacked most in these cases were the means to defend themselves adequately.

Then we have well-meaning society’s usual scapegoats: alcohol/substance abuse and mental health. Let’s be honest here: if I were homeless, I would certainly try and dull the hurt every fucking day with whatever I could get my hands on. Not you? If I were homeless, whatever my mental health was when it started, I know it would get progressively worse. This is at best a chicken and egg issue, at worst a deliberate sleight of hand on the part of people unwilling to part with their prejudices and money to solve the problem.

Just as heartbreaking is the fact there are people who have been on the road to homelessness since birth. Many have grown up in the foster system, the sins of their parents being visited upon them without remission for decades. Then there’s abuse, past and present. Homelessness is often the answer to the question “Why don’t they leave?”

There are families in this situation: brothers, father and son, etc. This can add a roadblock for the person trying to get out. You either drag your family out with you, or they drag you back down… Or you cut ties.

In fact, the social aspect of being homeless is an often-misunderstood obstacle. As one sinks deeper in the transient life, most social ties get cut off, or maybe a person has never had social ties to begin with (TBH some of them are incredibly annoying and lack the most basic social skills – not a stretch to imagine the person’s family peeling off one by one, exasperated and annoyed).

But then they become part of a group that hangs out in the same places: the shelter, the park, and a few others that tolerate their presence. They make friends, even a family of sorts.

When housing is finally found, often it comes with strict rules about guests (understandable as it’s often with shared spaces) and sobriety. So they have gained a roof, but lost all their buddies. It soon gets lonely so they go back to their hangouts to visit friends. Maybe one is suspended from shelter and needs a place to sleep for the freezing night; another might offer them a drink, and get offended if they refuse too many times… Hop, they are thrown out and back at the shelter.

Some simply walk out and never go back – to the great chagrin of the people who set up the lodgings.

Reactions to being in such dire circumstances vary greatly: quite a few try to put a good face on it, are nice to talk to and not always unhappy. But inevitably there will come a day when I catch the sadness and resignation in their eyes, and even despair and anger. The rage is the most understandable part of the experience – who would not be angry in such a situation?

It is often simmering, because even the ones with mental health issues know they have to keep it on a tight reign (when you need others to help you survive till tomorrow, anger is not a useful currency) but it pops up, usually at the worst possible time, and the consequences often sink them down further.

I have also learned how much homelessness costs. The shelter is a drop in the bucket, but add up the various expenses: a building (+ heat, power and water), employees to operate it, support staff for the guests, meals, furniture, bedding, transport, outreach… Then there are the incidentals: we average one emergency call a night, either police or ambulance. This means a complete team of EMTs or police monopolised for an hour. Then there’s the waste: we will soon be moving to a third temporary facility, essentially because of NIMBYs. Every time, the buildings need to be adapted to the purpose. And finally, in this time of Covid 19, add isolation and quarantine hotels, testing…

Why not fund more appropriate lodging? Low-cost dependencies and dedicated spaces in medical facilities? I’m pretty sure it would be less expensive. Two years in, it feels obvious that homelessness is the consequence of policy choices. An abundance of lodging would lower rents and the value of real estate. And so, like with Amazon warehouses and sports stadiums, taxpayers must foot the bill and subsidise the accruing of capital by wealthy landlords.

Yesterday, a man came to see me because he was in extreme pain. Both of his feet had been amputated because of frostbite. He now only has heels.

The day before, a young man told me he couldn’t take it anymore and had decided to kill himself.

Last week, a client asked me to advocate for him against his employer who was illegally retaining 2500$ of his salary.

Last year, I saw a man defecate in a sewer drain in downtown Toronto.

Every day, the number of people needing our services goes up, even if spring has arrived. And what are cities doing? Removals, forbidding access to parks, closing public bathrooms…

A "wheelchair friendly" park bench

How long are we going to shrug and look away? How can we justify this?

For the love of our fellow man, let’s find real solutions, ones that focus on the root causes: poverty and people who prey on the poor.

Start with a liveable minimum wages (indexed to rents). Try funding rent relief programs to aid people close to eviction (it costs a small fraction to prevent homelessness as to fix it); combined with rent caps (so we don’t just subsidise greedy landlords again).

Push for stronger laws against predatory leases, AirBNB proliferation, and exploitative employers. Review fiscal loopholes that make an empty expensive apartment more attractive to landlords than one rented at a lower price.

Think up better transitioning from the foster care system and improve the integration of ex-inmates. Decriminalise homelessness and fund public defence. Encourage second-chance landlords and/or create paths for people of low revenue to improve their credit scores and expunge their eviction records.

Build affordable housing that keeps in mind the necessity of social interactions, and special care housing for those with substance abuse, health and mental disabilities. Try to integrate the people you are helping, support them in creating communities where they will feel valued.*

And if looking at this list you feel it is impossible, that it is too expensive and will lead to abuse, remember that you have been trained to think this way by people who profit from the artificial scarcity of lodging – in fact YOU may be profiting from the artificial scarcity of lodging as a homeowner (I am too). However, as a taxpayer, imagine how much more could be done with our tax dollars if only politicians could remember that poor people are human too.

*There are many small organisms that try and realise what’s mentioned here. They are often too underfunded to advertise, and they would welcome donations if you feel so inclined.

BUT you can also take a second to think about whether you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Do you pay your employees adequately (could you live on it)? If you own apartments, do you take into account your renters’ ability to pay before raising rents? Would you consider giving people a second-chance after an eviction or a criminal record? If you build, do you only go for high-margin luxury places, or do you make sure to have a decent proportion of what you build be smaller and affordable?

To paraphrase the great Bishop Desmond Tutu: philanthropy, or fishing people out of the river, is all very well and good, but it would be so much better if we could stop them from falling in.

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