I knew Jack* when I worked at the homeless shelter. In his 50’s, clean-cut, polite, he easily met the criteria of sobriety necessary to move out of ’emergency’ shelter into short term supportive housing on another floor of the 50,000 sq. ft. building.
That was 4 years ago.
The short term has turned to long. His emergency has become his way of life.
He feels stuck. Trapped. Hopeless.
“The longer I stay, the harder it is to get out,” he said as we stood on the C-train platform where we’d run into each other. He’d remembered my name. I had to ask him for his. He paused and looked at me with his clear blue eyes, shaking his head from side to side. “I wonder now if I ever will.”
He’s working three to four days a week and wants to move out, he told me, if he could just get a place he can afford.
The cost of housing in this city, the unpredictability of his temp work and his fear of falling back should he move out have trapped him. “I don’t want to move out only to move back,” he said. “Done that too many times. It only makes it worse.”
Last October, when Calgary performed a Point in Time Count of homelessness, of the 3,555 individuals counted as homeless on the night of October 16th, 1,292 or 36.3% were living in short term supportive housing. Middle aged men, 45 – 64, comprised 39% of the total homeless population. (source)
Baby-boomers are aging out in homelessness and many of them, like Jack, are stuck in the despair that comes with living on the edges too long.
I didn’t have an answer for Jack. He wanted to know if the Foundation I worked for could help him. “You have housing don’t you?” he asked.
We do, I replied, but our focus is on the long term, high-acuity, chronically homeless.
“Aren’t I chronic?” he said. “I’ve been stuck in it for way too many years.”
And he has, but his acuity doesn’t score high enough on the measurement tool used to determine acuity. “Our resources are limited,” I told him. “To end homelessness on the larger scale we must first house those whose mental and physical health issues put huge demands on public service systems.”
In the context of the Plan to End Homelessness, that means the 16% of the homeless population who account for 40% of shelter spaces and put a strain on public service systems through their high use of emergency services, police interactions and judicial costs.
“You mean I’m not broken enough?”
It was not an easy conversation.
I stood and looked at him and saw a man, broken and dispirited. He isn’t a trouble-maker. He doesn’t break the law. Why wouldn’t we want to help him instead of the guys who are drunk all the time and keep breaking the law, he asked. Why do they deserve so much help?
In Calgary, 86% of those who enter an emergency shelter move on within 3 weeks without any intervention. Men like Jack, once trapped in the system, keep fighting to get out but for whatever reason can’t find their footing beyond the shelter doors. For some, gambling is the culprit. Unseen, it erodes their well-being leaving them continually cycling through a disease others can’t see and they cannot cure.
For others, the cycle of emotional abuse that long term homelessness represents traps them in its maws, forcing their will and their spirit deeply underground. In its wake, it leaves them continually despairing of ever finding solid ground. They work and spend their money, week after week. Some will spend years staying at the shelter, working enough from Monday to Friday to be able to afford a motel room on weekends, only to return on Monday night to the shelter, spent and despairing of ever finding a way out.
For all of them, housing is the way out.
And that’s what Calgary lacks. At least the kind of housing they can afford. Nothing grand. Nothing over-the-top. Just not too expensive. A room of their own. A small fridge. Hot plate. A place to call their own where spirits mend and they can put their feet up and breathe deeply into the knowing, this is their own place to call home.
“I’d love to have a girlfriend,” Jack said. “But how do I introduce her to my 140 roommates?
And like with so many of his questions, I didn’t have an answer.
*not his real name