Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Geography of Homelessness

It would be very hard to live on the streets in Canada now, at least from what I can see here in Victoria. Every nook and crannie of every street downtown has been gated, locked, or is patrolled by security guard companies. It seems that many business owners and municipalities are taking a more active role, cementing up sleeping spots, and using any creative method they can to prevent "undesirables" (what a word) from "polluting" the landscape. It's not surprising. It's easy to understand the perception that street people loitering outside one's storefront has a negative impact on one's business. So if you walk down Douglas street at night, you will see all these subtle and not-so-subtle tactics at play: classical music blasting out of speakers at MacDonalds, security guards whipping by in sophisticated vehicles--no doubt equipped with technology that rivals the local police department-- and the police moving people along. It's a frustrating situtation, and it seems to be growing larger somehow. Does the problem seem larger because of a larger street population? Cuts to social programs? Yes, and no. Partly, the problem is larger because of the gates and security technologies being employed.

Think about it for a second: Back in the 1980's, a street sleeper could sneak into a back alleyway, curl up beside a garbage can, and nobody would be the wiser, except maybe the guy who takes the garbage out in the morning. The homeless were very hidden. I know, I was one of them. I could sleep in the corner of a parkade, or curl up behind the bushes at the local city hall. I could sleep on a random rooftop undisturbed for the whole night. Today, those options are gone. The homeless are woken up and moved on several times in a night, which leads to a crisis of sleep deprivation in a lot of cases. As the system gets better at locating and policing possible sleeping spots, people are left with no options. Take a look at this story from Fresno:

The story parallels our situation in Victoria: People being shuffled from one location to another, with not enough social resources to draw on. Every city in North America has been dealing with "tent cities," and forced evictions from "unsafe sleeping environments." People are running out of places to go. Check out the story below about the tent city in Toronto:

Ironically, as the homeless get pushed out of more "secret" environments, they are becoming more visible to business owners, to the public, and to the media. As awareness of the homeless plight increases, the need for shelter is being made obvious. Because people are being forced to fall asleep on busy sidewalks during broad daylight out of exaustion, the problem is right in front of us. This may be frustrating for those who are trying to "get rid" of the homeless, because the current strategy has merely sharpened the pencil on the issue. In Victoria, meetings are being held every week with city officials, police, social workers, and business owners to come up with fast solutions.

We need to be as creative with housing solutions as we are with loitering deterrents. The street population is incredibly diverse, and the housing solutions need to match this diversity. We need to keep the dialogue going. I will not say that pushing street people out into the public eye is a positive thing, in fact I think it's degrading and humiliating, but I think we in the helping industry should use this new visibility to highlight the need for affordable and comfortable housing.

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...

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Tips for getting off the street...

I thought I would share some advice for those trying to get off the street or out of extreme poverty. 16 years later, I am not looking back, and these basic ideas have helped shape my new life. Feel free to pass them on:

1) Start where you're at. Yes, some people are in better shape than you, are healthier, richer, or seemingly happier, but comparison is your enemy right now. Just focus on the next step in front of you.

2) Use everything as a possible resource. Every piece of food you eat is energy that can be used to get you to the next appointment, for example. See everything as an opportunity to get ahead.

3) If you are really involved in the street community, consider dropping out of it for a while. The only way out of your situation is to look after yourself for now. If you want to help others, you have to get your feet on solid ground-- it's way more effective.

4) Be honest, come clean, and hold nothing back from those who want to help you. The truth can't hurt you if you are in control of it.

5) Be humble. If you are leaving the street and entering a new part of society, you have to show respect for that new culture. Yes, you have street smarts, but they won't help you with the bank teller or the university clerk.

6) Be patient with buracracy. NOBODY likes paperwork, and it is not a conspiracy against you, it is just a side-effect of a huge population. Roll with it, and breathe deeply when you fill out the application form for the 4th time :)

7) Expect some setbacks. You will get your stuff ripped off, get kicked out of apartments, get rejected by people, fall in love, get hurt, and lose your shirt many times. You can let this stuff bother you, but only for a little while... giving up won't make it go away-- life is full of struggle no matter which way you go.

8) Use your creativity. Street life teaches you how to improvise, which is a HUGE skill. You won't understand how important this skill is until you get a few notches up, and then people will be pounding down your door for fresh ideas. If you get stuck, be resourceful. You have it in you.

9) Keep in your heart the thing that inspires you. Maybe it's your musical talent, your kids, or your dog. Honour that part of you, and use the strength that it lends you.

10) Communicate communicate communicate. Tell people when you've had it. Tell them when you are happy about a new job. Find someone and tell them, even if it seems trivial. You are worth it.

11) Believe in people. That includes you.