“Who’s going to live here?” It is one of the most frequently asked question when talking to communities about housing for formerly homeless individuals.
The challenge is, the answer is the thing that causes their fear to rise. Individuals with long-term experience of homelessness.
Not because formerly homeless individuals and families are scary, but rather, because often we carry misconceptions of what the state of homelessness is and who the people experiencing it are.
Homeless and criminal are not the same words; yet there are those who believe Homeless = Criminal.
People experiencing homelessness may have a criminal record. But then, it’s almost impossible to live in homelessness and not be ticketed for some infraction for which the majority of us would never be ticketed.
Jay-walking. Sitting on park benches. Open liquor in public spaces. Being intoxicated in public. Spitting on the sidewalk. Littering. Urinating in public. These things happen every day in our city, especially during Stampede, yet often they are overlooked by authorities because, well really? Are you going to ticket everyone? And anyway, it’s Stampede. It’s just what happens.
In homelessness, you do not have the luxury of a backyard or living room to pop open a beer and kick back. You do not have access to a washroom when you need it.
As to jay-walking and sitting on park benches and other things that people of all walks of life do everyday, they are less likely to be ticketed at the same rate as those who are visibly homeless. Add to that the fact that individuals in homelessness do not have the resources to pay fines and often do not turn up for court dates, it’s easy to see how a criminal record can easily follow.
The other factor that leads to individuals in homelessness having criminal records is that addictions are often a result of, or part of the homeless condition. And, even though homelessness accounts for less than 0.1% of the population, over 40% of those experiencing it self-report having an addiction (approximately 10% of the total population will report being impacted by an addiction in their lifetime).
Again, without the resources to a) support an addiction, or b) get help; individuals will turn to other means to get the substances they need to feed the beast of an addiction.
And that’s why housing with supports is so important.
Homelessness by its very nature is an unstable condition. With housing and supports, individuals begin to take stock of their lives from a place of stability. In that place, evidence clearly shows that self-care follows. Use of illegal substances, interactions with police and emergency response teams, incarcerations, all decrease.
For six years I worked at one of Canada’s largest homeless shelters. During that time I never once experienced a mob scene where a mass of individuals yelled and threatened staff, demanding they answer questions or give them assurances they will be safe on our streets, or not be ticketed for sitting on a bench, or as happened the other night, give them the names of the people who were coming in that day to serve meals or sort clothing or a host of other jobs regularly filled-in by volunteers.
Yet, last week, when my co-workers and I attended an open house to meet with community about a proposed housing development for 28 formerly homelessness citizens , we were met with an angry mob threatening us, demanding answers, yelling out and demanding to know, “Who is going to live here?”
They weren’t there to talk about the merits of our proposal. The aesthetics of the building. Its fit within the architectural landscape or compliance with zoning.
They were there to talk about ‘the people’.
When a for-profit developer proposes an apartment building, community does not demand to know the income, life-history including criminal background-check, race, gender, faith of those moving in. They do not demand to know what will they do in their spare time. Because they have no right to know these things. And to ask would be to risk being charged with infractions of the Human Rights Act.
Yet, because people have been marginalized, impoverished, homeless, and are often without a voice, people feel they have the right to ask questions and use names that demean the human condition of fellow citizens. They feel they have the right to act out in ways that are more threatening and offensive than anyone I have met on the streets or in a shelter who is experiencing homelessness.
This week, I have been sifting through emails from community members regarding our project.
I am stunned by the face of NIMBYism (not in my backyard) many of those who have written in portray. It is not pretty.
Yet, at the same time, I am optimistic. Their opposition is not based on the merits of the development. It is all about fear.
We can, I hope, abate fear by continued engagement that heightens our awareness of the need to lower our voices against and raise our voices for taking action to get homelessness off the streets and out of backyards by making it possible for people to find themselves at home.