Saturday, November 21, 2015

An Open Letter to Christy Clark

An Open Letter to the Premier of British Columbia

Derek Book
2661 Florence Lake Road
Victoria, BC, Canada

November 21, 2015

Dear Madame Premier:

I came from a very broken home, and as a youth, I lived on the streets for five years in many different Canadian cities until I finally came to Victoria BC in 1990, and turned my life around.  I am in fact, lucky to be alive, and lucky to have an opportunity to write this letter.

Regardless of my rough start, by 2004, I was university-educated and ready to help my community, to give back. I took a job at a homeless shelter, and started a career that seemed perfect. I was very good at helping, because of my experience and resourceful approach. Over the next 12 or so years I helped hundreds get off the street, or get health care, or get addictions treatment.

But something was brewing in the political realm that I did not factor in. Things were somehow getting harder each year. I eventually got promoted to outreach worker, case planner, and even a couple of coordinator jobs, but the work was patchy. Always contracts, sometimes with benefits, sometimes without. All of the programs I was trying to refer my homeless clients to were being shut down, replaced with websites, and renting was becoming nearly impossible for them, because the social assistance rates were frozen.  Furthermore, rents in my city were astronomical. We were told by our employers that we were under a wage freeze, so we trudged on, trying to save lives where we could.

And we lost so many.  In one year, I counted 60 deaths of people in my community who were current or former clients of homeless services!  I started to throw myself at the work in desperation, and it started to weigh my life down.

It wasn't interacting with the homeless that caused me stress-- I enjoyed my time with them-- it was the lack of resources available for them, and the confusing network of red tape that they had to go through to access help.  It was always "do more with less". My co-workers seemed to be falling apart as well, especially the ones with families to support.  Some of us were going to the foodbank ourselves, standing in line with the same clients we were helping at the shelter.

Finally, things started to come apart for me.  I suffered a divorce, and a lengthy legal battle, but I could not find support anywhere.  I could not get a legal aid lawyer because the legal system was overwhelmed, and something that should have taken me 5 minutes, took 2 years to resolve-- simply because I did not have anyone helping me understand my rights.  I took stress leave, and I saw counsellors, but the problem was not emotional, it was structural.  I could have the nicest, most supportive counsellor telling me "Derek, you just need a lucky break," but the circumstances were simply not workable.  I bring home about $2000 to $2500 per month when I work.  I pay $600 in child support, and about $1500 for a three bedroom so I can take my two kids on the weekend.  If you do the math, you will see that I cannot make it go with those numbers, no matter how much I try.  I am not eligible for any rental subsidies because I am not seen as having dependants.

So I let go.  I left my last contract job, and I have been on EI for the last number of months.  My EI is about to run out, and at that point, the rest of my life may start to collapse.  If I cannot find work, I will be eligible for $640 per month on social assistance, which will not be enough to get me into a rooming house in this city.  That means my children lose even the weekend time they had with me. I will be working hard to make sure that doesn't happen. Unfortunately, the best I can do is get back to a $2500-per-month employment position, where I will still be in financial crisis, but I have to keep going.

If I look back, I feel as though I have been starved out.  My clients have been excluded from this society to the point where their very survival is threatened, and my co-workers and I are beyond exhausted.  There was a period of time when it seemed like we were moving forward, and we could do some great work with people, but now it is simply too much tragedy for staff to adequately deal with.

I think the people of British Columbia will be reacting to these difficult circumstances in the next election, but that is not why I am contacting you today.  This letter is meant to be a wake up call for you.  There are still many lives that we can save, regardless of partisan politics.  I trust you know of the "Housing First" strategy that is working around the continent, and I think you know how to get the resources out quickly.  I am asking that you approach my mayor, Lisa Helps, and her council, and come to the table on some of her initiatives.  She has made a great start as a leader of this city, and I would like to see some provincial support for her efforts.

Thank you for your time, and contact me if you have any questions.

Derek Book, Victoria BC

Formerly Homeless: A Journal of Lived Experience

Tuesday, November 17, 2015


I am one of the authors of this book, and we will be doing a tweet chat tomorrow at 1pm Eastern Time.  Join us on twitter #hhchat.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Affordable Housing will NOT Solve Homelessness

A lot of people are talking about affordable housing as a means to end homelessness, and while it will certainly improve the chances of people on the street, it will barely make a dent for many of the homeless-- here's why:

When I was a case planner and a housing advocate, I worked with hundreds of people to try and find housing.  Some were fortunate, and we managed to get them into supportive housing, or negotiate with landlords to allow a tenancy.

Most of the landlords who accepted my clients, however, were slumlords, and they had little respect for their tenants.  The slumlords wanted to keep their buildings full, so they allowed tenants to stay if I endorsed them, and if I promised to mitigate any conflicts.  Often, my client would have to be completely honest, revealing health issues, criminal records, or bad credit or renting history.  This personal information can all be obtained today anyway.  Take for example this site, which allows a search by a person's name, revealing how many times they have appeared in criminal court, and information about the charges being dealt with.  It's a horrific amount of information for a homeless person to reveal, but there are 6 landlords I can think of off the top of my head who will run your name through this site before they rent to you.

So my clients had to extend themselves beyond what a normal renter does, and be up front about any shady history they may have had.  This also impacted their tenancy, because if a person was accepted under these shaky terms, and if there was any "trouble", (bringing bottles and cans home from binning, lots of visitors, the smell of marijuana, etc) the landlord would call me and ask me to remove them. I usually tried to mitigate the trouble, but it was very difficult when the tenants were already viewed in such a bad light.

These are just some of the challenges faced by the homeless.  If there are 400 chronically homeless people, and you build 400 bachelor units that cost $500, you would simply make life easier for students and seniors, because they will look a lot better on the tenancy application.  Homeless people will stay homeless if they can't pass a tenancy check, which in my city, always includes the submission of your social insurance number for credit checks.  Oh, you are free to not give them your SIN number, but then they just say "we decided to go with another tenant."

So market housing is off the table for people with poor credit history, and not surprisingly, people who live in poverty often have a compromised credit history.  People in extreme poverty can also have addiction issues as they try to cope with their circumstances, and criminal records (because of course judges like to make "no drinking" orders as part of probation).

But, you might say, we can just build supportive housing, right?  This is the well-intentioned but false belief that supportive housing is somehow unconditionally approved.  It is not, at least not in my city.  We have a "Centralized Access to Supportive Housing"  portal (the "CASH" program, ironically) which governs ALL of the supportive housing in town, and they have very stringent criteria.  First, clients are expected to reveal all criminal histories, including charges, time served and upcoming court dates, past evictions, mental health issues (including treatment and prognosis), they need to have a secured, verified income, AND they need to have me (or another advocate) endorsing the application.  It is much, much harder to secure non-profit or supportive housing in my city than it is to find market housing.  Quite often, I would submit an application to CASH with my client for due diligence, but most got housed through wheeling and dealing with slumlords.  If my client was lucky enough to pass the CASH criteria, and secure supportive housing, the battle was still not over, because if there were any problems, they would be evicted for "the safety of the other tenants," and the next CASH application they submitted would have a clear mention of this eviction...

Welcome to reality, I'm glad you could join me.

What can I tell you at this point?  What do we need to do to save people who are in grave danger on the streets?  I'd like to remind you of how overwhelmingly successful the "Housing First" strategy is(click here if you don't know of it), the idea that you simply give keys to a person on the street, and then support them in their tenancy, rather than screening people. Why is this program so successful?  I will tell you why I think it is.  Housing First is successful because it is unconditional.  If you scrutinize people, some will not pass the screening, and those people will become chronically homeless.  No matter what criteria you use, you will have to exclude some people in a system of scrutiny.

So here is my solution:

Housing First
Education First
Employment First
Health Care First, etc etc

I hope this list makes sense in this context. I am not saying that any of these components should have priority-- though housing is perhaps the most important--  I am saying that we need to lower the barriers, screening, and scrutiny of people who have experienced homelessness.  I was one of the most successful housing advocates on the various teams I was employed on for one very large reason: I never said no. I accepted each and every client as a potentially fabulous tenant, no matter what state they were in, or what they had done.  I trusted them. The enemy is not the lack of affordable housing, it is the lack of trust between the "haves" and the "have nots."