In January, 2008, I sat in a room with a few hundred other Calgarians, most of them involved in some way in the homeless-serving sector, and applauded the launch of Calgary’s 10 Year Plan to End Homelessness.
When asked, “Do you think we can do it?” my answer was always, “It would be great if we could.” When pressed, I’d temper my enthusiasm with words of caution. “What do we mean when we say we will end it? Do we mean people will never pan handle again? Or fall on hard times with no place to go? Or not need emergency support?
If ending homelessness meant that, the answer was no.
But did I believe in the vision? Absolutely.
It is big and hairy and audacious, and it is vital to hold ourselves accountable to a vision like that if we are to make a difference, if we are to ensure people don’t get trapped in homelessness for years.
“Jack”* was in his late 40s the first time he stepped across the threshold of a shelter. He only stayed a few days before he sorted out the problem that lead him there. Before that, he’d done everything he could to avoid the shelter doors. He’d found a roommate to avoid Calgary’s high rents. When the room mate situation didn’t work out, he’d stayed with friends and when he ran out of friends, he spent a few nights sleeping in a park. He didn’t like that very much so eventually, believing himself to have run out of options, he landed at the shelter door.
The first time was hard. He was scared. Worried about what it meant to have fallen so far down he had no other recourse but to enter the shelter.
The second time, a couple of years later, was easier and by the third time he stayed at the shelter, he had filtered through enough of his fears and reframed the experience to mean, he wasn’t ‘a loser’, which is what he’d told himself the first time. He was simply using the resources available. And anyway, the folks at the shelter were nice and as long as he kept to himself, nobody bothered him. He was still determined to not stay there for long. He was still committed to getting out as soon as he could.
And then, the housing market went crazy. Afford his own place? Not going to happen.
What he thought would be just a few week’s stay became months. Months eased into years and suddenly, without his even noticing, Jack found himself permanently entrenched at the shelter.
“It became comfortable,” he told me once when I worked at the shelter. “Nine years go by pretty fast if you’re not watching.”
I ran into Jack not long ago. I was walking west. He was walking east. When he saw me he stopped to say hello and give me a hug. “I missed you when you left,” he told me.
We chatted for a few moments before I asked him where he was living now. “Are you still at the shelter?” I asked him.
“Nope,” he replied. “I got a place.” And he smiled and stood taller, straighter, prouder.
When Jack turned 65 and his old age benefits started to come in, he decided it was time to make a change. With the help of a senior’s housing agency he found subsidized housing he could afford. He’d been living on his own for a year when I ran into him on the street and was determined he was never going back.
“It used to be I’d work temp jobs, get some cash and blow it all on weekends,” he told me. “Even though I had the same amount of money then as I have now, I didn’t have a lot of hope I’d ever get out of that place ’cause I couldn’t see how I was going to afford it.”
For Jack, as for so many, Calgary’s high cost of living keeps them trapped in believing there is no alternative, there is no place for them to call home other than a shelter. As one man I know once said, “I’ve got a roof over my head and food on the table. I can’t complain about sharing my place with a few hundred other roommates. I can afford free.”
It wasn’t until Jack ‘aged out’ that a path to stability and independence appeared.
We can do better. We must.
Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness is about ensuring people don’t get trapped in using shelter as a long term solution to their housing needs. It’s about ensuring Calgary has the system of care, the necessary affordable housing, and the right supports to ensure homelessness does not become a trap from which the only escape is to age out or die.
We will not be able to open the doors to home without a vision that says, “Yes. Together, we will end homelessness.”
Eight years ago I sat in a room filled with hope and possibility and a belief that together, we can make a difference.
A lot has changed since that day. We’ve learned a great deal. Acquired more information and data to base our decisions upon. We’ve filled in gaps, streamlined processes and gained a better understanding of what it means to be homeless, what it means to end it, and what it takes to do it.
One thing hasn’t changed. My belief that it is vital that each of us hold space for the vision of ending homelessness. Each of us believe in our capacity to make happen.
For Jack’s sake, and for thousands of others, we must.
*Not his real name.