The other day, I finished reading Iain De Jong‘s The Book on Ending Homelessness. This morning, I had the privilege of listening to him speak about Moving from Managing Homelessness to Ending Homelessness.
Before I get into what was presented to us today, I want to provide some context with respect to my understanding of and experience with homelessness.
I’ve been very candid about the fact that I was living independent of my parents when I was 15 years old. I want you to think about that for just a minute.
What does it mean for a 15-year-old girl to be living independent of her parents?
It means I was lucky. It means I was the perfect recipient of help. I was worthy. And I was – for all intents and purposes – homeless for several months.
Because I was the proverbial good kid – hard working, responsible, straight ‘A’ student, etc., – the parents of a couple of my high school friends took turns providing me with food and shelter for the several months before I turned 16. I couch surfed.
I was fortunate that a woman who worked in the welfare system at the time (this was in 1991) helped me find a place to live for when I turned 16. That place was in…well, not the best neighbourhood in Niagara Falls and the other tenants were…well, maybe not people with whom you’d normally want a 16-year-old girl associating. But that place was a home I could afford on my meagre combination of welfare and part-time student wages. And that’s what I needed. A roof over my head where I was reasonably safe and that was on a transit route so I could get to school and to work.
I was also fortunate – though it certainly didn’t feel that way at the time – that many of the kids I went to high school with knew my situation and their parents would send various care items to me through them. I was fortunate that I often worked the closing shift in a fast food restaurant that had a salad bar and the manager would send home with me the produce that we’d have to otherwise throw away, which meant I wasn’t a regular at the local food bank.
For years, whilst living with addictions and mental illness, my sister’s housing arrangements were precarious. My ex-husband and I helped out when and where we could, but it wasn’t always possible or feasible.
Lastly, I have worked as a fundraiser in the shelter system. And my workspace was located directly in the shelter. If only a little bit, I got to know the women who were housed in the shelter.
All of that, in addition to having read numerous books and articles, including De Jong’s book, doesn’t make me an expert. It does, though, probably mean I know a few things. And it probably means I know a bit more than most people who currently make decisions about homelessness in Niagara or who carry on (especially on social media) about the ‘right’ solutions and what needs to be done ‘now.’
And I couldn’t agree more with what is written in De Jong’s book or with what he said to a couple hundred of us today. Though his stated purpose today was to make us uncomfortable, I was not uncomfortable, and as I read his book, all I kept thinking was: of course.
I strongly encourage you to read his book, and here are just a few highlights from his talk from today:
(and, actually, I’m just going to leave them all here as the notes I took without diving deeper with an explanation for each note, because you really just need to read his book)
- Homelessness is not the failure of the person. It is the failure of the system of care
- You can hate homelessness. You cannot hate homeless people
- Ending homelessness means that homelessness is: rare, brief, and non-recurring
- We have projects in search of a strategy
- We can different better services through professionals than gimmicks
- Regarding volunteers versus professionals: We often confuse a big heart with a big brain
- We need to get into the business of prioritizing and triaging individuals and families
- Homelessness is binary. You’re either housed or you’re not housed
- We should always be asking: Does this get people closer to the experience of being housed? If not, why are we doing it?
- When we talk about gathering information and solutions from local experts, we should be talking about low-income people who are housed, but not in social housing, and have never accessed the homelessness service system
- The vast majority of individuals who live with addiction, mental illness, brain injuries, have criminal records, are sex trade workers, or any of the other things we immediately think of when we think of people who are ‘difficult to serve’ are housed
- Homelessness has more to do with trauma and lack of community than anything else
- House someone and then help them with their healing
- Don’t ‘fix’ people as a condition of being housed
- What kills homeless people? Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, other stress-related illnesses and ailments. Weather doesn’t even crack the top ten
- We need professional facilities staffed with professional people to end homelessness. Shelter is a process, not a destination
- The housing continuum model (i.e., shelter, transitional housing, supportive housing) is not based on any evidence or data
- The best place to teach someone “life skills” is in their home
- Many people and agencies operate as: “Change who you are, so I can give you what you need” rather than: “You are who you are. Let me give you what you need.”
- We need more rent supplements
- Focus people’s charitable giving on the solution, rather than on band-aids
- Use the end user to drive your system of design
- The needs of people aren’t about the therapeutic redesign of people’s lives. What do they need to be housed?
- Ending homelessness is not an exercise in continuing to add programs, projects, and shelters. It’s often an exercise in subtracting to free up resources for evidence-based policy and programs
- If you meet people where they’re at, you get much better results
- Every $10 you spend on housing someone who is homeless results in a savings of $21.72 for other services they would have used or interacted with (law enforcement, healthcare, etc.)
- The work of ending homelessness can be broken down into five core principles:
- Everyone is housing ready
- Supports are individualized
- People are empowered to make decisions in their own life
- Recovery is possible
- Social and community integration is key
- We need more rent supplements
- Rent supplements keep people housed
- Transition existing transitional housing into permanent supportive housing units
- Find ways to braid policy and funding (from different levels of government or other sources) together
- Right now, the biggest policy barrier is in social housing and how people are prioritized for housing
- The only cure for homelessness is housing
- For every shelter bed you add to the system, you need to add six housing units. If you’re not adding housing units, you’re just warehousing homelessness
All of this to say: I agree. Wholeheartedly.
In Niagara, we need more affordable housing and we need to look at more creative ways to house people. We need to incentivize the development of affordable housing. We need to incentivize mixed-use developments.
Imagine what could happen to our housing and homelessness issues if we built just one floor of housing on top of every single-storey plaza in Niagara.
We need assistance from higher levels of government. We need our own citizens to be open and willing to contribute to local solutions.
A couple of recent meetings where housing and homelessness have been discussed:
Public Health and Social Services Committee
There was also an October meeting at which some providers presented and I (and others) asked a number of questions, but the video link isn’t working presently