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."

Friday, November 13, 2015

Recent Radio Interview

Media Fear Mongering about the Homeless(again)

Yet another media piece (link here) that describes a violent perpetrator as a "Homeless Attacker."  The actual story seems to be about an untreated mentally ill man who was violent with an actor.
Its not a surprise that the story comes from Fox News, but ALL news stories seem to make this glaring mistake.  It is absolutely intentional, there is no way you can convince me that those very intelligent writers are not adding "homeless" to get higher ratings.

They could just as easily say "bearded man attacks actress," because the violence is not caused by his homelessness, at least not in the way the story portrays.  By using the words "homeless attacker," a writer is implying that the person has attacked someone because of their homelessness, which is not the case.  This person's homelessness is caused by mental illness, but he could have just as easily been an educated, employed, and even trusted community member who had a reality break.  In fact, if you look at similar attacks, it is almost always somebody who is housed.

This is a mentally ill person, and thank goodness the actor (Pauley Perette) said "we need more housing and mental health treatment" because it is so much easier to demonize the homeless as deserving of their fate when you have such fear mongering.  Perette must have been terrified, but at least she didn't come out of the experience with further stigmatizing statements.  Bravo for her! 

I think this kind of language used by news outlets causes stigma, because people are likely to become afraid of homeless people, and the knee-jerk reaction is to say that we need more jails, police, and punishment, instead of addressing mental health in a way which is compassionate thoughtful, and effective.

So let's listen to what Perette said and get busy.  The streets are no place for mentally ill folks, or families, or domestic abuse victims, or people with disabilities.  The streets are no place for anybody.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

This mental map of community resources for the homeless lends a new perspective...

Many years ago, I created a database of community resources, made in Microsoft Access.  It was a simple set of menus, and the idea behind it was speed... I was an outreach worker, and I wanted to find contact info in a couple of clicks.  It was before Google became the first research destination.  At some point, I started longing for a resource database that was as good as Google maps.  See, only with google maps can you be looking at the planet, and by simply rolling the mouse wheel and shifting a bit, you can sift through every street on the globe and find your house.  It is the fastest filter for information I have ever used.
Armed with this inspiration, I stumbled on a mind map program that offered the promise of "zooming in" with the mouse wheel to filter out data.  I started to use it, and found a number of benefits:

1) This resource database is easy to use.  I put some instructions at the top of the map, and anybody could use it with a few clicks

2) It allows you to look at the whole picture of resources, but also allows you to narrow down your parameters in a second.

3) As you navigate it, you learn about resources.  For example, when navigating "mental health supports" users will see there is a large list of peer support groups, which may encourage them to pursue that option. 

4) I could develop links to exactly the right website, and save the researcher the time it takes to sift through a government or non profit website.  For example, if you look for birth certificate applications, the mind map takes you directly to the pdf that you can fill out with a tablet and send to a printer.

5) It was set up as a network, so I could add collaborators and work with teams to keep the information up to date, one of the largest challenges to a resource guide.

6) It was readily available for anybody with a smart phone, tablet, PC, Mac, etc because it is hosted online, and the company has supported apps.

The themes from the main menu were chosen by considering the various challenges that lead to homelessness, which are many.  It is set up this way to help outreach workers get to the right area based on the circumstances their clients are facing.  I have been updating and linking the data for more than 4 years now, and it is much larger, but it is still easy to get to where you want in seconds.
I realized with time though, that it looks a bit harder to use than it is.  People perhaps think of a huge complicated multicoloured flowchart and they shudder.  It really is easy to use though, I swear.
I am going to develop a tutorial to help new users I think, because once you have this tool in your toolbox, you become infinitely more valuable to your clients.  I would like to some day make this an open source tool, in which service providers can update their own information.
For now, its worth going over to have a look.  Let me know your thought, and share as needed.  I think any community could benefit from this type of tool, and mind maps can be created quite quickly and easily.  Follow the link, and think "Google Maps" as you are using it.


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.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Why People with Lived Experience Overshare

I overshare.  I admit it, I can be in a professional meeting about a specific, non-political task, and yet I see no problem with telling people my real background to give context to my position.  I have noticed this quality in others with lived experience as well- we are not afraid to tell our story.

While there are pros and cons to self-disclosure of any sort, the person who has experienced homelessness, trauma, addiction, mental health issues, or similar issues within their family has I believe a specific reason for being willing to disclose:

We survive by ending the silence.

This means that we survive by admitting that we were abused, and making peace with our abusers.  We survive by drawing attention to the hell we go through and have gone through, rather than perishing in noble silence.  Being reserved about your personal matters is a privilege afforded to those who are simply accepted for who they are- I don't have such a privilege.  I am not the same as all the other reindeer, I have this stupid glaring red nose, and I am forced to explain why I do the things I do all the time.

We survive by ending the silence.

We are also forced to reveal personal information in order to receive help, thanks to the merit-based systems we currently have in place.  When we want to leave our dysfunctional families and try to improve our lot, we are bombarded with application forms, and prodding questions.  Some of us have to testify, confront abusers, and blow whistles to make changes.  Some of us are forced to take on oppressive structures, and fight battles we don't intend, because we cannot improve our lives while we remain invisible.

Those who have been through hell also come with a gift for sharing, and we like others to share as well.  The street culture is decidedly collectivist, and the spirit of sharing with each other is a community strength, not a deficit.

So please, stop thinking that I'm "oversharing."  Stop rolling your eyes and thinking it's unprofessional, or cringing when you hear me wax personal.  I am gaining strength, not losing it, by relating what I have experienced.  It is a gift for you, it is a gift for me.

Sorry I called my nose stupid.

Enough about me.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

The Homeless are Running Out of Places to Exist

I just read an article about how the homeless are now banned from Reagan International Airport.  The homeless are quite simply running out of places to be, it seems.  As property values increase, as the network of security guards, cameras, and cruel infrastructure designs (Such as spikes or bars where people might sleep) becomes more readily available, the homeless are getting locked out.  I imagine that homelessness will simply be illegal in the future, and anybody without an address found on private or public property will be arrested and taken to the last acceptable place for the homeless: Jail.

The author of the article says that we shoo people out of such places because it makes us feel uncomfortable to walk past people with dirty blankets, but I think it goes a little deeper.  I have often thought that the reason we feel uncomfortable lies in the fact that we see ourselves in them.

Every time somebody asks me for help, though I am usually quite poor, I am pressured to give, because I feel like I am failing to be human if I do not.  As the level of crisis escalates, the stakes go up.  I can walk by somebody who needs a couple quarters for a cup of coffee, but what about a guy who has no shoes?  How about a physically disabled woman who needs food?  A child? The stakes go up as our systems of exclusion reach near perfection, and we find ourselves abandoning hard-working families who simply cannot afford housing, even with two jobs.As the pressure increases, those with privilege are finding it harder to say no, and finding it harder to look at "them" without stopping to help.  There is a fear that our families will get caught up in the crisis, that it will tip the carefully-balanced lifestyle that we worked so hard to achieve.  As I've said in previous posts, we are taught from a young age to stay away from ill people, from "dangerous" friends, who may pollute our lives with dysfunction and drama.  This fear of others keeps us from reaching out to help them, and perpetuates the cycle of life-wreckage. 

So we tell ourselves that there are some people we don't want to be associated with, or that there are "some people you just can't help" and that's that.  It would be a simple solution if there was still an "Australia" to "ship your undesirables to". In today's hyper-real estate world, there is really no place for destitute people to go.  The presence of people in crisis negatively affects property value simply because of the stigma of association, and most parts of the world are owned.  Furthermore, the "public" places, such as libraries, parks, and sidewalks, are full of disenfranchised people, because they are the only places that legally allow extremely poor people.  This causes communities to rise up and declare that the parks and community spaces are not meant for crisis, which then prompts new bylaws banning feeding the homeless in parks, etc.  Exclusion leads to exclusion.  We still think that there is some place down the road where the poor old guy can rest his feet, but we don't realize that the place down the road ALSO has security guards and cameras, and other ways to exclude the homeless.  And thanks to cheaper and more powerful technologies, we get better at exclusion every day.

At a certain point, it will become obvious that this is not a working system, and we will be forced to find a place for people to go.  It is a battle being fought in the courts, and I'm sure we will see many changes down the road, because the courts will always rule in favour of humans having the right to exist.  In the end, we will simply give them houses and a basic living wage, because it is cheaper and easier than trying to exclude them.