Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Municipalities Know the Homeless by Name, says Tsemberis

"Only at the city level do we know who is homeless by name"

I found this quote from Sam Tsemberis in a story by Judith Lavoie about homelessness in my city.  Sam Tsemberis, of course, is the fellow behind the "Housing First" movement, and his simple but shockingly successful model for addressing homelessness has been making headlines around the continent these days.

I have been thinking about responsibility lately, perhaps because we just got through the Federal Election, and Victoria is currently considering a sizable investment in housing for the homeless.

Tsemberis is quoted as saying that municipalities "know the homeless by name," and I agree.  Cities also know the context that a homeless person lives within-- the specific local challenges and circumstances faced.  For example, the needs of the homeless in Victoria are shaped by the wet climate on the West Coast, so tarps, umbrellas, and good foot care programs are needed here.  Furthermore, any supportive housing units built have to budget for solid weatherproofing.  Victoria understands these local needs better than the Province, or the Federal Government.

The homeless are sensitive to, and better helped by small, personable and local community resources. From my early life experiences of homelessness, exclusion, and disenfranchisement, I learned how destructive it is to cut off a person coldly-- I felt simply ignored for the most part, a lost drop of water in an ocean of people in crisis.  Even today, 25 years off the street, I still feel a slight panic when I deal with a call center or an international webpage for things, because I feel like one of millions.  Those of us with lived experience do not tolerate being invisible well.

Beyond being a more local and warmer approach, a municipal initiative is also a just approach when you consider who benefits from ending homelessness.  Take my own story, for example.  I was homeless in many different cities in many provinces in Canada between 1985 and 1990.  I landed in Victoria and got off the street, recovered, and then spent 12 years helping the homeless in Victoria.  Along the way I have spent money, helped build the local economy, and where I could, I helped my city understand local homeless needs.

Victoria has benefited greatly for supporting my efforts, and I see my city, and the local community resources here as the primary investors in my life.  I have definitely been helped by federal dollars, and the issue is very complex because local resources are funded in part by federal and provincial money, but in general, I have received the most help from real people I have known in my community.

I would not want to use this argument to say that we don't need money from other sources, but I very much appreciate that my city is currently taking the lead on this issue.  Local homelessness initiatives are more effective, human-centered, and economically sensible.

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