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Stop treating the homeless like criminals

October 23, 2014

The Metro Vancouver municipality of Surrey says, for the second year running, that it can’t find anywhere to put a winter homeless shelter — besides in Vancouver, that is.

I suspect the municipalities around Vancouver skimp on providing their own homeless support services in the hopes their homeless populations will move to the big city.

Burnaby, which, as far as I know, has never had homeless shelters is definitively trying to dump their problem on Vancouver.

But Surrey insists their difficulty placing an extreme weather shelter is due to NIMBY opposition. According to an item in the Georgia Straight “the community was not supportive”.

For two years now, the ratepayers of the “city of centres” have been telling Surrey City Council “We don’t need no more stinkin’ homeless”!

Well, I’m homeless and even I don’t like homeless shelters — for some of the same reasons that neighbourhoods don’t like them: the mess, the drugs, the petty crime. Oh, and I don’t like the bedbugs either.

But while I can relate to the not-unreasonable “scared rabbit” opposition to homeless shelters, I can’t relate to the thoughtless bigotry behind some of the opposition.

What’s the point of success if government helps the failures?

I’m referring to the kind of bigoted opposition which isn’t against homeless shelters, it’s simply against offering any kind of helping hand to homeless people.

One commenter to the item on the Georgia Straight’s website summed it up nicely:

“Get a job. No shelters in Surrey end of story”.

This is the kind of silly, self-defeating nonsense that passes for conservative thought these days.

Purely on principal, conservative types say they dislike government spending to assist the poor. They say that this is a case of big government usurping the role of the community.

What they mean — what these social conservatives really hate about government spending on social programs — is that it denies them their god-given right to deliberately do nothing — to ignore the people they deem undeserving — to leave the homeless and the drug addicted and the HIV-positive to their fate.

If you think about it, the commenter was expressing a self-serving view that does nothing whatsoever to advance the interests of society.

Reduce, reuse and recycle your homeless

Not to keep hectoring a point but what I believe would advance the interests of society would be government services underpinned by the idea that homeless people need, whenever possible, to be reintegrated into mainstream society.

Not simply to be self-supporting  in the sense of being a zero-sum-gain to society — many homeless folk can already do that.

Society needs to rid itself of the poisonous notion that society doesn’t need homeless people or drug addicts — that they can just be thrown away and replaced cheaply by immigration.

Canadian society can’t afford to throw any of its citizens away. From where I’m sitting it looks like it needs all the help it can get.

Canada should stop listening to right wing cant and do whatever it can to help homeless people become both self-supporting and a net gain to Canadian society.

In the current context of half-measure services the “get a job” mantra is so much bullshit.

Society should help all working people even the homeless

There are very few services designed to support a homeless person who works.

I have a question for those of you who are not homeless.

What time do you have your showers in the morning so you can be at work on time? is it after 10 a.m. (when the city of Vancouver’s Gathering Place in downtown Vancouver opens) or is it perhaps three or four hours earlier?

Where in Metro Vancouver can a homeless person go to get a shower at 6 a.m. (besides anywhere — if they’re willing to stand naked in the rain)?

As a homeless person I have held both part- and full-time jobs and I’ve known many other working homeless, including security guards and even a Coast Mountain bus driver.

Keeping clean and doing laundry can be challenging when you’re homeless. When a homeless person gets a job maintaining their basic hygiene actually gets that much harder.

Holding a job mean being available when your employer needs you to work. Few employers are going to bend their requirements to suit the banking hours of municipally-offered shower and laundry services.

McDonald’s (a restaurant chain) provides the only consistent support services for homeless people trying to keep clean, seven days a week, holiday or otherwise.

Drop-in or community centres, are useful to homeless people only if we control our work schedule — which mean collecting cans and bottles as a means of support.

Getting a job doesn’t mean getting a home

Don’t get me started about a working homeless person finding a place to live. It’s not just about being able to pay the rent; it’s also about the big gap in your rental history, not to mention the stigma of being homeless.

Housing in Metro Vancouver is a seller’s market. Landlords can afford to be choosy. If you’re homeless, there are always a hundred people behind you with far better renter credentials.

A working homeless person could use a hand over this hurdle but I’m unaware of anything any level of government has done to improve the chances of a working homeless person to get housing. Last I heard there was welfare and they don’t talk to you if you have a job.

First we need to identify the problem

All levels of government in Canada should be legally required to provide the identification they in turn require people to have in order to fully participate in society: hold jobs, get bank accounts, vote in elections.

Homeless people have the least security of person of any group in society and very often end up with no identification whatsoever and no easy way to replace it. This means most homeless Canadians are virtually stateless.

A person without two pieces of photo ID in Canada simply isn’t treated like a Canadian citizen. I was once asked for photo ID in a Canadian Tire store when I tried to return some motor oil I had mistakenly purchased only minutes before — from the same cashier.

 Serious room for improvement

For most of the time I’ve been homeless the way off the street has been through the Downtown Eastside. But that isn’t getting off the street.

All the worst qualities of the street are actually inside the bedsit rooms of the Downtown Eastside.

In the last few years a number of new social housing units have become available across Metro Vancouver. Relative to homeless people these new complexes appear to represent an extension of the status quo.

I see these new complexes almost as suburbs of the Downtown Eastside.

That sounds uncharitable but the same drug-addicted homeless people who would be living (are living) in the DTES are now living in several of the new social housing complexes — on Dunbar, on 7th Avenue and Fir Street, at Kingsway Street and 1st Avenue. And I’m told that these complexes  are naturally all serviced by drug dealers.

In a very real sense, the new social housing doesn’t change much. The system is still all about people getting on welfare, getting into a room in the Downtown Eastside or on a list for social housing.

Then, I guess, the system believes your problems are solved, you have a roof over your head and access to showers and laundry.

I don’t believe that’s necessarily true about the bedsits in the DTES but I think it is true about the new social housing — roof, bathroom and shower. Good stuff.

Then I  finally have the necessary means to keep myself and my clothes clean so that I can properly hold a job? But why not before? And why do I have to get on welfare before I can get off the street?

I’m unreasonable enough to want a 24-hour shower and laundry facility (I’ll pay); with security and a zero drug tolerance policy and a commissary, maybe small storage lockers.

In fact. if I had my way, there would be a transition facility located on city property in an industrial area which would have everything I just mentioned as well as a serviced campsite.

The way we treat the homeless is just criminal

The whole idea is to stop treating homelessness as a circle of Hell and see it as just another way some people will end up living in society; like the way some people end up living in a crappy windowless basement suite (shudder).

In effect I’m advocating that society legalize homelessness.

As with marijuana, decriminalization and normalization of homelessness would allow society to disengage the lack of a roof over a person’s head from the real problems of poverty, unemployment, social injustice, substance abuse and mental illness.

Many people become homeless because of problems with substance abuse and mental illness. But in my experience the problems of drug abuse and mental illness come to settle on many people — like crows on garbage — only after they have become homeless.

We simply have to stop throwing people away once they’ve become homeless. It’s inhuman and worse than that it’s a waste of human potential.

But I expect I’ll be homeless for another 10 years at least before I see that kind of rational change in society’s attitude.

In the mean time I’ll settle for safe, round-the-clock showers and laundry. This would make a huge positive difference in the ability of homeless people to continue to be functional members of society.

From → Homeless life

  1. One of your best posts, ever. I will share this with as many people as I can.


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