Bricks and Stones

Blaming the homeless for not having homes.

Campbell River recently beat the provincial average. A homeless person dies every 12 days in B.C., according to the BC Coroners Service, not two in one day. The average age at death is 45 years. The five leading causes of death among the homeless are natural disease, drug poisoning, blunt injuries, hanging, and drowning. Of course they are dying from natural diseases, how are you supposed to manage your diabetes, high blood pressure, dental infections that go to your heart, or cancer, when you don’t have a home?
If you are someone who blames the homeless for their situation and does not feel so charitable towards the issue, then think of this. According to the Ministry of Health, our hospitals are sheltering homeless patients in acute care beds because, even though they no longer need to be in hospital, they have nowhere else to go. This ‘alternative level of care” costs a thousand dollars a day per homeless person. Keeping them on the streets costs at least $55,000.00 a year but some say that between ER visits, ambulance trips, court appearances, drug and alcohol treatment, incarceration and shelters it is more like $100,000. The cost of a unit of supportive housing, by comparison, is about $37,000 a year. If you do the math, you know what the answer is.
Poverty is now the leading cause of homelessness in Canada. It used to be substance abuse and mental illness. Now there are families, women, students, immigrants, aboriginals, many working, all who just need a place to rent that they can pay for and still afford to eat.
There is just cause to suggest that had there been two business people found dead in the streets, or two school children or two grandmothers, the community would be up in arms. But when you are homeless, hurting, addicted and/or mentally ill we seem to devalue those lives, they are not as important as the others. If they are lost because of homelessness and the impacts of living rough, then it really is yesterdays news. But these people did have those who cared about them and loved them and they will at least be mourned by a few who look past their circumstance to the human beings they were. Until we are ready to acknowledge that there but for the grace of God go I, homeless deaths will continue to occur, as hidden as the homeless themselves.
There has been a lot of talk about homelessness over the last few years. Most of the talk has been about the homeless and not with the homeless. The problem has grown so much in the wake of cutbacks to social services and the fact that Canada is the only developed country in the world without a national housing plan. There have been studies, committees, task forces, homeless counts, homeless initiatives, stakeholders meetings, and action plans; all have sucked money out of the system and service providers out of their offices to all these meetings, and yielded very little if anything in return.
We need to stop profiling, defining and examining an issue when the answer has already been tried and proven elsewhere and in consultation with the very people we are trying to help. It is called Housing First and it has met with significant success in the United States and Britain. We don’t need more coalitions, we don’t need to coordinate services, we don’t need to identify service gaps, we don’t need to allocate and organize resources, because the solution we need is waiting on the sidelines while we all continue to talk about the problem. The homeless have said that finding permanent housing for them instead of just focusing on improving services as they continue to live on the street is what they need. The homeless say provide realistic and timely support after that, to help them stay housed, to give them time to heal. The homeless say we need to address the poverty and inequality that underlies their situation by raising welfare rates, minimum wages, and disability pensions to the same level as what it costs to rent a home and be able to eat and obtain health and dental care. We need to stop talking about them and for them or we will continue to mourn them as they die alone in our back alleys and our forests.
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