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The Homeless Hub’s easy way to get off the street

November 23, 2015
HelptheHomeless

Part of the infographic that accompanies the article.

The Homeless Hub is one of the largest web-based resources on Canadian homelessness. I think of it as being aimed at providers of services to homeless people, mote than at homeless people themselves and I see it as the Canadian home of the American-born Housing First approach to ending homelessness.

So I was quite interested to read a Homeless Hub article entitled: Infographic: How to Survive the Street and Work toward Employment and a Home, in part because it drew on the advice of a former homeless person.

On the surface the article seemed at odds with the Housing First philosophy which otherwise imbues the Homeless Hub website.

Housing First, as I would boil it down, avers that one ends homelessness by simply giving every homeless person free government housing.

The article, on the other hand, advises homeless people to make sure that they shower and wear clean clothing and look presentable and that they get themselves a job. And once they’ve saved enough money, they should rent themselves a place.

I like this advice a lot and I wish that it had worked when I tried it.

It didn’t work but society should make it work

The meat of what the Homeless Hub article advises is exactly what I did  after I became homeless in 2004. But though I managed to stay clean and tidy and I landed the job and I saved the money, I utterly failed to end my homelessness.

I failed, in large part, because I couldn’t convince a landlord to take a chance on me. It didn’t matter that I had a job and a steady income — such was the stigma that had built up around homeless people.

To be homeless was (and is) to be a mentally-ill person who habitually steals to feed their drug habit.

And honestly, would you rent a room or an apartment to a stranger who admitted that they were homeless?

But if convincing a landlord to rent to me proved to be an insurmountable hurdle, it wasn’t the only barrier that I felt was in my way, each and every day that I worked to get off the streets.

There were simply no services designed to assist working homeless people — almost nowhere to get a shower before or after regular business hours or to do laundry — I was turned away from community centres which were the only city showers available before 10 a.m.

There was also no assistance to be had in the difficult matter of getting my identification back, or of keeping my bank account when it became too expensive. And when it came time to find a place to live, It would have made all the difference, I think, if there had been a government program to lend me some credibility in the eyes of landlords.

I’ve written blog posts about this before and I specifically wanted to reply to this Homeless Hub article because I believe that based on my experience and the experience of others,the advice being given, hardly works in the real world.

A homeless person will be very lucky to get off the street this way. Not only will the stars have to line up just right but a number of people along the way will have to give the homeless person the benefit of the doubt, where they normally wouldn’t.

I also believe that the Housing First approach, which the Homeless Hub pushes relentlessly, is at odds with the advice in the article. By its singular focus on putting and leaving people in paid government housing, Housing First does little to help people work their way out of homelessness and back to self-sufficiency.

If anything, I feel that the rush to refocus all government homeless funding towards Housing First social housing units necessarily sucks funding away from programs designed to help people while they are living on the street.

For what it’s worth — redundancies and all — this was my slightly raw comment to the Homeless Hub article:

While I agree with the steps listed in this article, I find that what’s missing is any reference to the necessary role of government in facilitating homeless people in getting themselves off the street through work and saving.

I consider myself a case in point because I tried hard to get myself off the streets by getting a job, saving my money and trying to rent.

Within a day of becoming homeless in Vancouver B.C. in 2004, I had half my stuff stolen while I slept, including my identification and my bank safety deposit key.

The B.C. welfare worker I spoke to days later told me that it was my job to get my I.D. back and that I would have to get an “intent to rent” before assistance of any sort would be forthcoming.

I found a part time job in a book store until 2005 but it paid next to nothing. I still had to collect bottles to be able to feed myself and wash my clothes, etc.

In 2007 I managed to get a more-or-less full-time job by not telling my potential employers that I was homeless.

For the next two years I worked like a dog — sometimes for 19 hours straight. I banked every dime I could, but I couldn’t keep it up. The absence of any real support for working homeless made trying to hold down a full-time job fairly intolerable.

Simply getting a shower or doing laundry was a terrific ordeal. There should have been shower and laundry facilities available at least from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. so working homeless could access such facilities around real-world work schedules, but no — The city-run Gathering Place in downtown Vancouver, for example — 10 a.m to 4 p.m. with a generous lunch break for unionized city staffers.

And no matter what I saved, no one would rent to me because I was homeless and had a giant hole in my rental history.

Unfortunately there were no government services such as I could see to help give me some credibility in the eyes of landlords. I had a job after all — welfare was for unemployed people.

I gave up the job at the beginning of 2010 — it was too much stress.

If I must be homeless then it’s better that I support myself collecting bottles; that way I can control my schedule and get showers and do laundry within the limited window that such services are made available.

And I had to give up my bank account in 2012 because I could no longer afford the service charges.

Another thing that I believe you neglect to say is that the Housing First model is fairly antithetical to people trying to work their way off the street.

Housing First not only does nothing to help and encourage homeless people to work, save money and find market housing, I believe it actually sucks up the resources that would be needed to provide such services.

In Vancouver, certainly, Housing First appears to be little more than a project to warehouse drug addicts and get them on disability assistance so that they can continue their panhandling and drug-taking forever, from the secure base of a government-paid sleeping spot. I’m sure it’s not that way in all cases but from where I sit, that’s what it looks like.

There is now a wide spectrum of structural homelessness built into our complex Canadian society. It will never leave us. Some people will be homeless for days, others for weeks and so on.

I believe that Canadian society needs to build am escalator designed to provide the services to help homeless people lift themselves out of homelessness and back into mainstream society as self-supporting citizens.

This is not anything like the goals of Housing First, which simply seems to tie people perpetually to the government purse.

It should be the law across Canada that all levels of government must insure that everyone has access to the legal identification that they need to work, vote and otherwise fully participate in society.

There should be something close to 24-hours shower/laundry and storage services in a city the size of Vancouver — such services need not even be free.

And the government should stand behind homeless people who are working and trying to become renters again.

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3 Comments
  1. Slowcrow permalink

    Right on the mark! I DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY, IT APPEARS, THIS LOGIC IS IGNORED…… Oops, sorry, I guess I’m yelling!!! :). Must reading for all concerned people, and soooo simple. Thank you.

  2. Oilybird permalink

    As always you make an elegant and worthy point about the desperate catch 22 that is homelessness. Do you know of any charities that actually follow this sort of plan by facilitating showers, somewhere to store valuables, assistance with getting id set up (one of those things that is often overlooked) and most importantly working as a guarantor for the homeless when it comes to renting? They seem mostly to be focused on soup kitchens and clothing in Vancouver whereas I would gladly volunteer with one that would do this more long term work. I won’t even go into the need for low cost housing in order to prevent homelessness occurring in the first place. I would say that the government should be doing something but as we all know they don’t.

    • The Union Gospel Mission, in the Downtown Eastside, offers some manner of storage. I’m told there is another group in the DTES. in the Carnegie Centre at Main and Hastings that may help with ID. The City’s Gathering Place, on Helmeken, has phones that people can use — perhaps also the UGM.

      Right after I became homeless, The first meaningful thing I did toward my future was to find a storage locker company that was willing to take a chance and rent to me (every day I’m grateful for that locker). The second thing I arranged for was a mailing address — at the Main Post Office downtown. Unfortunately, that didn’t last. The third thing I wanted very badly but couldn’t swing was a gym membership (a lot of working homeless in the U.S. recommend this).

      In 2012 the city of Vancouver finally set up a rent bank on the Toronto model — long overdue but a very good thing all the same. By far, the easiest and most cost-effective way to get people off the street is to keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.

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