Getting real with homelessness

I had an unusual experience in the last few days. A homeless gentleman showed up in my pub one evening. He was friendly enough. He paid for some food and a few drinks and then hung about with some of our regulars for the evening who ended up putting him up for the night. While homeless folks are pretty common in Calgary, it is unusual in Priddis as we have little in the way to shelter them.

The next morning the fellow showed up in our coffee shop and hung about there for the day. Again, he caused no problems and bought a couple items. He is pretty rough around the edges though and made our younger staff members in the coffee shop a little uncomfortable. He then moved into the pub for the evening when it opened. He ate a pizza and then wandered off to where he had camped.

This morning the poor devil showed up at the coffee shop at 7am quite frozen and exhausted. It turns out that while he had a tent, he had no sleeping bag or blanket. He says he had heard large animals moving about in the night which is very possible as we have many cougars and black bears in the area. He was quite miserable and had barely slept.

I had tried to coax him into coming to Calgary with me yesterday to no avail. He was quite eager for a lift into the city today after his experience last night. I drove him in and dropped him off downtown today.

I had a long conversation with him on the drive. It sounds like this guy led an interesting though rough life (as I am sure is the case with many homeless). Substance abuse had taken it’s toll on him physically and while I am not a professional by any means it was pretty clear to me that while the gentleman was quite smart, he had some serious mental health issues.

This man was harmless and troubled. I very much hope he finds some help and settles in somewhere.

Now what I am getting to with this long ramble is that we have to get over this ridiculous and ongoing notion of “ending homelessness” and get more realistic in mitigating it. The man I was dealing with in this last couple few days will never be able to hold down a regular job and likely will never be able to place himself into a position where he can maintain an independent living arrangement. This man needs help mentally and fiscally and will need a degree of care to ensure that he doesn’t come to harm.

Rent controls, forcing developers to build certain housing units, secondary suites etc. and all the rest of that trash that comes from these initiatives to “end homelessness” will do nothing to aid folks like the man I met this week and the thousands of others who are in similar states yet this is exactly what these people who claim to want to end homelessness keep focussing on.

We need to realize that there are some people who will forever be transient no matter what we offer for housing. Some of these people will never kick their substance abuse nor will they somehow beat mental health issues.

Let’s work with those realities and see how we can best help these people with realistic mitigation and care options instead of pursuing expensive pie-in-the sky housing goals that will not help the people who have truly fallen through our cracks in society. I know that the authors of these countless initiatives are predominantly well meaning, but they are also blinding themselves to the true realities of some of these situations.

We need to invest more heavily in mental health facilities and yes, even have some people institutionalized at times. We also need to invest much more in temporary sheltering and substance abuse treatment. The funds wasted chasing potheads around would be well spent on this for example.

Like so many things (such as native issues), we need policy makers to work on dealing with hard realities rather than fluffy ribbon cuttings. It will make a world of difference to us all down the road.

::rant off::

5 thoughts on “Getting real with homelessness

  1. Well written Cory. You have really encased the issue and solutions in your article. The problem is that all the solutions don’t create photo ops and grand standing opportunities for the politicians. It’s no secret that these problems started back when some brainless bureaucrats decided that they could save money by letting mentally ill or challenged people live independently. Oh and of course they labeled it as giving them freedom of rights and choices. Only when leaders stop being self serving will the citizens be truly served. Until then governments will continue to live with policy and we will live with reality.

  2. The initiatives in Calgary and elsewhere to end homelessness of course can never be 100% successful because as you say, most of our homeless suffer from mental health and addiction issues.

    That being said, great strides have been made by social agencies in Calgary to provide affordable housing and counselling and treatment to these people over the last few years.
    The result had been better lives for them and less crime for us.

    The organizations that carry on this work are not only well meaning, they are professionals who do what they can with the limited funds that they are able to raise.

    The gentleman that you describe is likely resistant to mental health and addiction treatment. You cannot force someone to accept treatment unless they pose a real threat to themselves or others. When he is ready, I am sure that there will be a place for him.

  3. Oh I know there are all sorts of great people and great initiatives out there. I applaud those who are doing all they can with limited budgets.

    That said we also have a pile of duplicate agencies, piles of bureaucrats and countless initiatives and studies that seem more modelled to keeping government staff working than aiding people on the ground.

    What I am getting at too is the trend of de-institutionalization. People get squeamish in thinking of care institutions but they are not all bad and many people on the streets would be better off in a long term institution than living in the alleys. The efforts at community living have failed for many. I wrote a piece a few years ago on this when I noticed a man dumpster diving who was wearing a Special Olympics jacket from the 90s. As you said, many are resistant to mental health treatment. In cases where it is looking likely where these people will come to harm, I do feel that we need to intervene at times. A dicey area with possible infringements on individual rights to be sure.

    We need to take care of those who truly cant take care of themselves.

  4. We have a shortage of SROs – single room occupancy places, flophouses, with a soup kitchen. Many of these people can and will work for cash for a few weeks – then have a binge and drop out for a while – then get back at it. The ‘system’ wants to ‘cure’ them and will only bring them in if they agree to treatment. Some don’t want it. But we have removed most of the flophouse options that were affordable – so now there is only the street or DI/Inn from the Cold/Mustard Seed – OR agreeing to go infor the full treatment and placement. Maybe we need some capsule hotels; or like the Champions Centre in Ponoka (not sure if it is still there) a kind of ‘pension’ arrangement. I think Alberta Health Services and provincial fire codes have jointly wiped out a lot of reasonable, affordable, modest rentals in the city – leaving the lowest price units to be still far beyond people like this. And as for mental institutions, at an inter-agency meeting in Ponoka some years ago the hospital staff told me that a person comes in with a crisis – they get about 20 days of care to be stabilized. Then if they don’t have an apartment or family to go to (most don’t by this time) they are given a Greyhound bus ticket to either Calgary or Edmonton and a chit for a homeless shelter. How about that – talk about throwing away $100,000 of taxpayer funded medical care! Can’t think of anything more destabilizing than having the luxury of the Centennial Centre (a very nice mental hospital) for 2 weeks – then BOOM back on the streets…I do not believe the End Homelessness strategy or Alberta Health is addressing the gap in transitional housing in any real way.

  5. we used to have institutions that housed and cared for such people. the compassionate people on the left decided that they should be on their own and on the streets. now wasn’t that a great idea. S/

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