By Pauline Kerr
The bitter cold in recent weeks has raised questions about the adequacy of the way this country handles homelessness.
The situation is not new. There are images from Victorian times of people begging on the street and taking shelter from the snow in filthy, derelict buildings – a miserable morass of cheap gin and crime, but better than the poorhouse.
The Dirty Thirties had their hobo jungles of homeless men who rode the rails in a fruitless search for work, sleeping in barns and drinking Sterno, known as “pink lady.” The canned fuel could become a cheap and potent drink that gave users a momentary respite from the cold, if it didn’t blind them or kill them.
Fast forward a few decades, add heroin, and the image shifts to a city alleyway filled with garbage, discarded needles, and cardboard “houses.”
We used to think of homelessness as an urban problem, mostly affecting men, and definitely associated with substance abuse.
Reality is far different. The homeless person is just as likely to be female as male, may have a job and family, and may not be on the street but “couch surfing.” Although mental illnesses among homeless people are not uncommon, it is often a question of whether the illness caused the homelessness, or the other way around.
In other words, the only difference between them and us amounts to a couple of paycheques, a roof and four walls.
Decent housing is not an option in Canada; it is a matter of life and death. Every winter, there is a report of someone whose residence is a pile of cardboard boxes under a bridge, freezing to death. When the only source of heat is a couple of candles or a camping stove, fire is a constant danger. And then there are the people who show up at the emergency room with pneumonia or frostbite – or cancer – that went untreated a bit too long.
A quick internet check reveals homeless people die about 30 years younger than the rest of the population. The average life expectancy is somewhere between 40 and 50 years, depending on the website – roughly what it was in the early 1900s.
That seems to be the level at which welfare and disability payments, as well as the Old Age Pension, are set, too. None is enough to pay for the basics – food, clothes and housing – in 2022 dollars.
Every Canadian should have the means to rent a decent apartment or at least a room; it need not be the Taj Mahal, just a place that provides protection from the elements, and allows a person to stay healthy and safe.
The Victorians had their poorhouses, places of last resort for the destitute. At least they provided permanence. We have our homeless shelters, which do not.
This winter, most homeless shelters have been as full as COVID-19 restrictions have allowed them to be, with more people than ever living on the streets. The reasons vary; every homeless person has their story to tell. It is often a matter of bad luck – a decision that failed to work out as planned, an illness, COVID-related job loss or a landlord who discovers the concept of “renovictions.” There might be substance abuse issues, mental health problems or a marital breakup.
What the stories have in common is a shortage of affordable rental units, social services that are complicated to access because of COVID, and welfare cheques that do not reflect today’s housing costs.
Every community, rural or urban, has people who are experiencing homelessness. Every community also has buildings that sit empty – former schools and churches, empty stores and vacant strip malls.
Revamping our welfare system will be a daunting multi-year task; getting roofs over people’s heads so they survive the winter does not need to be, with a bit of creative thinking.
People who live in heated buildings, as opposed to under bridges, are easier to help with proper health care and social services, not to mention food, and eventually permanent housing.