Tuesday, September 12, 2006

More On Bureaucracy

I have been writing and thinking a little about systems and how they are difficult to navigate for homeless people, but I think I may have understated the problem. Imagine this scenario: You are homeless, facing a few criminal charges, do not have any ID, and are without any income, let alone a bank account. Your teeth are rotting, and you don't have a high school education or a bank account (or money to put in it).

Just think of all the wonderful 1-800 numbers and front desks of government agencies you would have the pleasure of using! Do you think you could deal with all these agencies in a few days? How about if you had a month? How long would it take you? Seems like a tax audit on crack, doesn't it?

The reality is, a lot of people would just get overwhelmed and look for a fast solution-- it's human nature. That's why no-questions-asked resources work so well with the homeless. The least amount of paperwork, the better. Of course we always need to keep our minds on the future, so some of these more complex needs should be gradually addressed, or we are just band-aiding the situation.

ID is a big start, and it feels really good for the street person to have a reasonable identity. You also need ID to apply for social assistance, open a bank account, and pretty much everything else, so why not start there? I remember feeling a glimmer of hope when I finally got a set of legitimate ID. An advocate might be useful at this juncture. To get ID in Canada, I had to provide my mother's information, my father's information (much more difficult), and then come up with the cash to apply. That got me a birth certificate, which is useless as ID, but it can lead to more. A social insurance card was next, and then I was eligible for "BC ID," which is a picture ID that substitutes for the driver's license in this province.

Just one of these bureaucratic tasks per week can be exhausting, so we have to be patient with people coming off the street. I've heard the term "street-entrenched" used before, and I think it's a good word to describe the scenario that a lot of people face. Ironically, it's a form of institutionalization, because people with no legitimacy are forced to live day to day at soup kitchens and emergency shelters. You could almost call it "anti-institutionalization," because it's the avoiding of institutions that leads to this form of powerlessness.

As systems grow more complex and difficult to navigate, we can expect that getting off the street will become harder and harder. I see many people giving up and accepting their lot now, overwhelmed with a combination of system complexity and shortage of resources. The new breed of social worker will have to be very creative to deal with this new reality...

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