Saturday, May 06, 2006

Systemic Homelessness

People have a natural fascination with the causes of homelessness. Nearly every pamphlet, poster, website, or policy document on homelessness takes a stab at why people become or remain homeless. Addiction, mental illness, and poverty are often blamed, along with child abuse, financial disaster, and negligent government poilicies. Every street person has their own reasons, and their own opinions about what causes homelessness, so it is not very helpful to paint the whole picture in one sweeping stroke of generalizations. While not pinning the whole thing on one donkey, I want to talk about what I will call "systemic homelessness."

Now, I am not a policy specialist; perhaps somebody has already used the term "systemic homelessness" in some other context. If so, just substitute it with something like "System-Induced Homelessness."(It's VERY important to invent your own jargon whenever you can). What I am talking about are the various social, cultural, and financial systems that we have slowly built over the centuries, and how they create "cracks" that vulnerable people can fall into. For example, a currency system prevents homeless people from aquiring food without money-- if you have no money, the system says "no soup for you." If you choose to ignore this system, you will find yourself facing the criminal justice system. We have "fashion systems" that dictate what clothes you should wear to a job interview, and cultural systems that tell us what things we should say to a prospective employer. In the movie "Trading Places," Dan Aykroyd finds himself systematically locked out of his life step by step. At the end of his journey to absolute poverty, he can't even get his hands on a razor. Every step of the way, he encounters a different system which denies him of his basic needs.

Now, I've defined a few systems above, but the systematic approach is so natural to modern society that we forget how pervasive it is. Let me give you an example: Let's say a tradesman named Fredrick lives in say, Kelowna BC, and he wants to move to Vancouver. He gets a construction contract in Vancouver, and proceeds to pack up his belongings, shipping them to a storage facility in Vancouver. He is waiting for payment from a previous contract, so he is short on cash. Fredrick expects that his bank will clear a cheque he deposited by next Monday, so he catches a greyhound bus, figuring he will stay at a youth hostel for a day or two. When he arrives, he finds every hotel, motel, and hostel that he can afford is booked. In desperation, he calls a homeless shelter, and is told that he can come over and register for the night at 8pm. When he arrives at the shelter, he is told that registration actually happens at 5pm-- the fellow who told him to come at 8pm was a new employee, and was misinformed. Fredrick is now completely homeless, at least temporarily. Ironically, the system utilized by the homeless shelter (e.g. the training system for new employees, the registration system) has been the final blow. I'm not going to analyze this story and list all the systems involved, but you can see that there are a lot of hoops for Fredrick to jump through.

Now imagine Fredrick has a mental illness, or substance addiction. Perhaps he has an issue with anger. If he breaks the window at the registration booth out of frustration, he will be carted away by the poilce and assigned a criminal record, which will make him less employable. You can easily see how systemic problems can accumulate for anybody with personal challenges. I have always had a low tolerance for application forms and clumsy systems, but when I was on the street, this dislike for systems left me paralyzed and unable to function at times. In fact, I would say I was afraid of systems, maybe because of my gypsy-like childhood. I will generalize here and say that many on the street feel the same way-- they can't deal with "the system." They are angry, frustrated, and often unable or unwilling to keep up with the complexity of modern society. Here in British Columbia, the simple process of applying for emergency social assistance has become a month long process of "pre-application screening," with plenty of application forms and paperwork to fill in. I imagine more than a few street folks just throw their hands up and do without rather than go through this crazy paperwork dance.

Hence, the really helpful street resources in my opinion are offered unconditionally, with "no questions asked." I realize that it is getting harder to offer things this way. Most community resources like soup kitchens and shelters need funding, and therefore they need to keep tallies, and provide accountability data. Liability and legal issues cause a lot of complexity as well. I guess what I am saying is that social help needs to strive for the goal of simplicity for the client. If a shelter can't be flexible enough to deal with the chaotic and non-systematic lifestyles of the street community, then the shelter needs to re-evaluate its mandate, and recommit to the goal of meeting clients where they are at. At one time, I was on the street in Calgary, and I slept at this shelter that was essentially a big room with a bunch of thin mats on the floor. You didn't have to be sober, on time, or registered to sleep there. You came in, the staff showed you your mat, and you slept--That was it. While that may seem pretty basic, it was incredibly effective, both as harm reduction, and as a launching pad for life changes. You could actually hold a basic job while staying in this shelter, because you didn't have to worry about where you were going to sleep once you got off work. I can't remember, but I think they gave you a bag lunch in the morning too. A simple plan with a simple outcome. I think these kinds of simple resources are essential as part of a community plan for dealing with homelessness. I'm not sure that every community would be willing to have places like this, however. For those who sleep on memory foam or a nice Serta every night, the idea of a mat on the floor is perhaps too brutal, but I'll tell you, it beats sleeping in a parkade because the only local shelter has only 20 or so beds. I say we should diversify our efforts to acknowledge the diversity of needs on the street. Flexibility is the key to dismantling systemic homelessness.

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