The foundation I work for held an Open House last night in a community where we are proposing to build a 25 unit apartment building for formerly homeless individuals.
It can be scary to a community to learn that a ‘homeless building’ is going to be built near them – even when that building is not a shelter but an apartment building with permanent supportive housing. Fear of the unknown. Fear of a lifestyle and a way of being in the world they don’t understand, fear of what it means to their safety, their property values, the people who will possibly be drawn to their community all cause people to push back against the unknown and hold onto what they’ve got — even when what they’ve got is what they don’t want, homeless individuals on the streets and in the parks.
We humans are funny beings. Even though our lives have been changing from the moment of our birth (even before) we will passionately resist change and argue our limitations.
Last night a lot of people came to learn about our project and to voice their concerns, along with their support. Some came to argue the limitations of what they believe to be true — that homelessness is having an impact on their community.
I agree. Homelessness does have an impact on every community. That’s why it’s so important we provide a path for people to follow to move away from it.
One of the most common concerns last night was about the number of visibly homeless individuals in the parks and along the river pathway that winds throughout the neighbourhood. This is a neighbourhood of beautiful green spaces, filled with flowers and trees and benches to relax on in the shade or the sun. And often, especially in the summer months, the parks are home to many homeless individuals looking for respite from one of the emergency shelters or simply looking to enjoy a bit of sun. Unfortunately, due to the homeless condition and its many pressures, many of these individuals are under the influence of drugs and alcohol. They can appear scary, frightening, unruly.
People fear for what they imagine to be true — in this case, we have a collective fear that every visibly homeless individual we meet is looking to take from us what we’ve got. We can’t imagine that someone who has nothing doesn’t want to attack us and steal away our belongings, and our peace of mind. What we don’t realize is that it is our limited understanding of the homeless condition that is causing our fears to rise, not the people experiencing it.
That’s why it’s important we provide housing and supports, I told the people I spoke with. By ensuring people get the support they need to sustain housing, we create safer communities by providing people the thing they want most, the thing we all want, a place to belong.
There is no perfect solution for ending homelessness. Emergency shelter isn’t ideal, but it does provide a necessary stopgap to help people who find themselves suddenly homeless. Emergency shelter is not designed to keep people in homelessness and the vast majority of those who enter a shelter’s doors leave without needing too much intervention. But there are those who get stuck, who fall onto a mat and lose their belief in their ability to get up again and walk away from the life that is killing them.
In their disbelief that another way is possible, they become the ones we fear when we see them walking our streets. It is not that they are out to harm us, it is that we do not understand what has happened to their lives and feel helpless, overwhelmed, angry, a whole host of emotions that we cannot describe about their human condition.
“Why in my backyard?” one man asked.
It is a good question.
Why in my backyard?
In this city of over 1.1 million people, there are approximately 3500 people living in homelessness today.
I think that’s tragic.
That so many people have fallen into despair, lost everything to wander our streets, to crowd the shelters and live in the chaos of not having a place to call home, is to me a reflection of where we as a community have fallen down.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
And that’s why an apartment such as we’re proposing belongs in our neighbourhoods.
Homelessness is in our backyards. It’s on our streets, roaming our alleyways and hiding out in the nooks and crannies of our parks and pathway systems.
It doesn’t belong in our human existence and the only way to change how and where it appears in our communities is to provide those experiencing it the safety and stability of a place to call home.
It’s not about giving them everything. It’s not about rewarding them for making a mess of their lives, as one person suggested on an online forum I was recently reading, It’s about providing the care and support needed for people who have stumbled and fallen so far through the cracks they’ve lost all sense of direction, the opportunity to find themselves without fear of being stuck in the darkness of homelessness forever.
And like all of us, when we find ourselves at home, whatever our condition, we discover our humanity wasn’t lost after all, it was just hiding behind the fear that we would never again find a place to belong.